Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Elephant Man

Directed by David Lynch.
1980. Rated PG, 124 minutes.
Cast:
John Hurt
Anthony Hopkins
Anne Bancroft
John Gielgud
Wendy Hiller
Freddie Jones
Michael Elphick
Hannah Gordon
Dexter Fletcher

John Merrick (Hurt) has been massively deformed all his life. He has been dubbed “The Elephant Man” and is forced to put himself on display as a freak at a carnival sideshow. He is such the draw, the carnival’s owner Mr. Bytes (Jones) calls him “my treasure”. Dr. Treves (Hopkins) is a well respected surgeon who wishes to study “the creature”. After John suffers a beating at the hands of Bytes the doctor takes him in, giving him a room in an isolated part of the hospital where the doc works. As word spreads about the institution’s newest resident, curiosity rises. Once again, people are flocking to see “The Elephant Man. Is Dr. Treves really any better than a sideshow proprietor? The good doctor eventually questions his own motives. The agendas of most others is painfully obvious. They either fear John’s grotesqueness or seek to profit from it by exploiting him. Those who do neither brazenly point and stare. Thus, the movie becomes an exploration of bigotry and the courage some will show in the face of it. We think the lines between good and evil are clearly drawn. However, we’re made to wonder if even the good guys are causing harm. Based on a true story.

Director David Lynch never lets us off the hook by skimming portions of the story. He paces his movie very deliberately, painstakingly so, at some points. This lets us know John intimately. We learn that despite his deformities and the way he’s been treated there is no bitterness in him. There is only his need to be accepted as a man. This makes him a completely sympathetic character.

There are no subplots to speak of. The movie focuses solely on the plight of Mr. Merrick. This tunnel-vision approach gives the film something I find lacking in other work by Lynch: coherence. It is not some cryptic mass of celluloid you have to wade through seventeen times before deciding you finally get it. It’s easily accessible without being easily formulated. Within its rather normal frame many of the director’s nuances and idiosyncracies are contained. However, he never lets them overwhelm the movie. Instead, they flesh it out.

The duty of fleshing out John only falls partly on the man who plays him, John Hurt. To his credit, Hurt plays the role with a perfect naivete and timidness. He wears the latter as a shield. It often fails him, but nonetheless comforts him by its presence. Like Frankenstein’s monster would eventually come to be played for laughs, it would’ve been easy to have Merrick be a bumbling fool, gaining our affections through laughter. Hurt plays him as a man keenly aware that his life is no laughing matter. The rest of the responsibility for making John whole belongs to Dr. Treves. Through an excellent performance by Anthony Hopkins, he draws the man out of the freak.

When its all said and done, we’ve gone on a tumultuous journey with a man that took no easy steps. We root for him not just because we want him to do well, but because we need him to. If he does, it reaffirms our belief that enough of us human beings are decent people. If he doesn’t he will not have failed, we will. In either case, it begs us to reevaluate how we treat those who are different from ourselves.

MY SCORE: 10/10

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