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40 Years Later: The Elephant Man

16 October 20 words: Charlie and George Alexander

Charlie and George Alexander look back on David Lynch's tragic true story of the "Elephant Man"...

Director: David Lynch
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft
Running time: 124 minutes

The Elephant Man is the heartbreaking account of the physically deformed John Merrick, set in the freakish and seedy depths of Victorian London. The depraved world that David Lynch often brings to his films already exists in the premise, which results in the film feeling the least “Lynchian” of the director’s work. Yet, Merrick’s story is an agonising lesson in empathy and understanding, which is stunningly captured.

Atmospheric and suspenseful, the film commences with Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a surgeon in Victorian London, delving through dark alleys in search of the infamous ‘Elephant Man’ who resides at a local ‘Freak-Show’. Sparking up a deal with the bad-intentioned, circus frontman ‘Bytes’, Treves manages to take said ‘Elephant Man’ - John Merrick -  and shield him in the hospital, in order to help develop his mental and physical state. As the narrative progresses, Treves, alongside the team at the hospital, revive Merrick, offering him a new-found identity and independence. However, not only is the film an observation of Merrick’s development, Lynch questions the human condition throughout and explores the perverse, Victorian response to the rise and fall of such a foreign figure.

Although simplistically a tale surrounding an oppressed individual’s empowerment, Lynch poses a more intricate question of moral righteousness. At face value Treves is depicted as a saviour-esque figure, however, the Mothershead of the hospital is the catalyst in developing our uncertainty on Treves’ true motivations. This is made evident at the midpoint, as she slams Treves for inviting upper class guests to sit with Merrick, stating that ‘people are laughing at him all over again’. Treves is guilty of degrading Merrick back towards a spectacle instead of a human; only this time for the benefit of the upper class. A grand self-revelation for Treves is lacking, yet at the climax there is a beautiful subtlety crafted into the screenplay, with Hopkins’ quiet but wholesome admission that "You have helped me too John". The film reaches an inescapably moving finale, demonstrating the confused level of co-dependence that has been created between the characters. An impressive, psychological exploration into the reasons behind gratuitous benevolence.
John Hurt’s Oscar-nominated performance is something of absolute artistic brilliance

Whilst not one of Lynch’s more experimental projects, it would be a crass over-simplification to ignore the stylistic features that were so cleverly incorporated. Most notably, the choice to shoot in monochrome supplements the power and effect of the story; not only offering such an ominous sense of dread during the opening sequence but also immersing the audience into the Victorian setting throughout. Lynch teases us with the introduction of Merrick, as we expect to be accompanying Treves at the great reveal, however, the director only provides a glimpse of the character and we are forced to watch Treves’ reaction instead. Lynch turns us into the baying mob from the freak show, desperately wanting to get a sight of the grotesquely deformed character. A clever decision that forces the audience to realise that we as humans have an innate sense of schadenfreude; secretly enjoying the sight of Merrick’s clear misfortune.

John Hurt’s Oscar-nominated performance is something of absolute artistic brilliance. Utterly unforgettable, the actor finds such a unique voice and physical presence that it is impossible not to feel overtaken by a collective empathy and anxiety over his fate; a mistreated and misunderstood man in search of an identity. A special note must also be made for the make-up artists, who created such an unmistakable character that the Academy was forced to create the ‘Oscar for Make-up’ a year later. The design and performance of Merrick is further heightened by Lynch’s brilliance. A clear example is when observing Merrick’s perspective, the director shoots upwards; whether it be train station ceilings or towards St Paul’s cathedral, we look to the sky through Merrick’s eye, representing the character’s unwavering optimism but more upsettingly, to avoid the horrors that lie at ground level.

Through intricate characterisation and a narrative so thick with perspective and significance, Lynch cements his status for masterful storytelling. The director is dexterous with his ability to craft such an emotionally involving narrative. Wholly uncomfortable in parts, enduring Merrick’s unprovoked abuse is a draining task, however, Lynch manages to relieve this through evoking such intense ecstasy in times of triumph. The story is a sentimental journey, utterly consuming through the heightened theatrical nature in which Lynch explores. Hailed as storytelling at its most sincere; it’s ability to arouse such a monumental amount of fulfilment and connection is why The Elephant Man will remain at the top echelon of cinema.

Did you know? Actor Bradley Cooper recalled watching the film with his father as a child as cites it as his inspiration to become an actor. Cooper played the character on Broadway in a stage adaptation in 2013.

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