Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘The Elephant Man’

‘Life… is full of surprises,’ declaims the sideshow owner Bytes (Freddie Jones) as part of his spiel, near the beginning of David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man. It’s a darkly funny, knowing moment, very much of a piece with the strange conspiracy that the movie enters into. The whole point of the film is that the title character is a hideously deformed man, from whose presence ladies and those of a nervous disposition flee, distraught. This is what it’s about, and that’s a rather high-stakes proposition for a film to be based around.

Because, initially at least, the film is in the same position as the sideshow barker, promising to show us something truly exceptional in return for a few pennies, while we are in the same position as the people queuing up in the film, wondering if it can really be as bad as all that. Quite properly, we have to pay to get in (or we would have done, back in 1980): while the title character, John Merrick (John Hurt), does appear on the poster, he has a bag over his head that merely suggests the extremity of his condition.

I think this is essential to understanding The Elephant Man as a film. It opens with a dream sequence in which Merrick’s mother (Phoebe Nicholls or Lydia Lisle, depending on whether she’s a photo or live action) is mugged by a herd of elephants. This is about as stylish and weird as one would expect from a Lynch movie, and – along with Freddie Francis’ luminous black and white cinematography – it goes a long way to establishing the fairy tale ambience which permeates much of the movie.

Following this, we find ourselves in the company of ambitious young surgeon Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins, not quite a bright young thing, but not the substantial figure he has since become, either), who is prowling the backstreets of London, seemingly in search of Bytes’ show. When the police shut Bytes down and move him on, on the grounds that the Elephant Man is an affront to public decency, Treves pays one of your actual Victorian urchins to track the show down again. Eventually he manages to arrange a private viewing for himself – but one to which the viewer is not privy, as the camera cuts away to Treves’ dumbstruck, wide-eyed face: tears run from his eyes at the mere sight of Merrick.

It’s a neat way of communicating the extent of Merrick’s condition while still preserving the mystery of what he looks like, but you do get a sense of the film milking it a bit:  Treves arranges to display Merrick to his colleagues, and we are still not allowed a good look at him; even after he is severely beaten by Bytes and is taken to Treves’ hospital for treatment, we are still waiting for the money shot. And then a young nurse (Lesley Dunlop) is required to go up to Merrick’s top-floor room, alone, and take him his dinner…

It plays out, in short, like a horror or monster movie: you can’t show the beast too early, there is a certain grammar and pacing involved that you ignore at your peril. And while The Elephant Man handles this convention as well as one would expect, given Lynch’s facility with genre movie tropes, it is strikingly at odds with the tone that the rest of the film works hard to achieve.

Central to the film, from this point on at least, is the idea that beneath the truly horrible deformities, Merrick is a gentle, decent, almost saintly man, infinitely more sinned against than sinning. Virtually everyone who meets him is moved to tears by just what a nice guy he is. Who is the real monster here? is the somewhat trite question the film is asking, although there is also a slightly sharper subplot about whether Treves is truly any less of an exploiter of Merrick than Bytes was.

I mean, this is a very good looking film with fine performances from an array of terrific English actors: apart from Hopkins, Hurt and Jones, it features John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick and Anne Bancroft. (There are a couple of oddities in the cast list, too: Dexter Fletcher, who these days is a rather successful director of bio-pics himself, appears as an urchin, while in a small role is the actor Frederick Treves, the great-nephew of the character Hopkins is actually playing.) As noted, it looks good, too. But I do find it to be terribly sentimental and manipulative, especially considering the abrupt switch from the horror mode it executes.

And it’s not just sentimental, it’s a bit slow, too – or at least, there’s not much of a plot to the film, once Merrick is installed in the hospital. In order to provide anything approaching a conventional dramatic structure, they have to contrive a subplot where Bytes reappears and drags Merrick off to Belgium, from where he has to escape and make his way back to London. From here we are off into a particularly sickly-sweet climax, accompanied by soaring classical music and the quoting of poetry.

As a piece of entertainment I suppose it passes the time very decently, the first time or two at least, but the more you become familiar with the reality of this story, the more questionable much of this film becomes: it’s largely based on Treves’ book about Merrick. The two men were supposedly close friends, but the weird thing is that Treves got Merrick’s name wrong: in reality his first name was Joseph, not John. And yet John Merrick is the name by which Merrick is now widely known. The rest of the film is up to the same standard of biographical fidelity, omitting all kinds of facts that don’t suit the film’s simplistic thesis. Merrick was not born deformed – his condition grew progressively worse throughout his life (exactly what his condition was remains a contentious issue). Perhaps most importantly, it’s not as if he was effectively sold into slavery, as the film suggests – joining the sideshow was Merrick’s own idea.

Well, as we have had cause to note in the past, it’s not at all unusual for historically-based movies to take the odd liberties in the interests of a good story. The question here is whether the story is good enough to justify departing quite so radically from the facts. For all the skill which has gone into the making of The Elephant Man, I’m not sure it is – as noted, it is trite and simplistic, and the keenness with which it adopts horror movie tropes in its opening act makes one really doubt its sincerity, too. An interesting movie, and worth seeing for the cinematography and acting, but not as substantial as its reputation would suggest.

Read Full Post »