Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Elephant Man (1980) - Review

The Elephant Man is a historic drama based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (known as John Merrick in the film) who was a badly deformed man in the 19th century. Directed by David Lynch and stars Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt, the film mostly recounts Merrick’s life and his experiences of meeting his doctor and good friend, Frederick Treves.

Film Cover
The film starts of as a woman being attacked and knocked over by an elephant as well as some shots of the woman in a portrait photograph. This is later proven to be Merrick’s mother. Set in the Victorian 19th century, where freaks and deformities are deemed as entertainment, Merrick (played by John Hurt) was tortured and trapped as part of the entertaining freak show; he was found by Frederick Treves (played by Anthony Hopkins) who sees Merrick as a deprived sick man who needs medical attention.  He brings Merrick into the London hospital to try and diagnose his problems as well as taking Merrick to his lecture to know his conditions. Throughout the course of the film, we see that Merrick had been abused badly as a freak though no matter how bad he looks, deep down behind his looks lays a gentle man. “Appearances are all, and like the proverbial Victorian piano, he can make the social grade only if his ruder appendages are hidden from sensitive eyes…” (Francis, 1980)
The acting of Anthony Hopkins was really successful and has given the emotions to its audiences especially when shown the Elephant man tears begin to stream down from his face, his relationship of his character towards Merrick did make it convincing like they're brothers or in a close knit family relationship. Hurt’s portrayal of Merrick was also successful in depicting the emotions and experiences of how Merrick lived was very convincing since he’s wearing prosthetics throughout the film, especially the speech and the limitations of movement comparing to the Channel 4 documentary, Meeting the Elephant Man where they explore and reconstruct Merrick’s time on earth as well as reconstructing the speech and movements. “Buried under an incredible mass of make-up, John Hurt still manages to invest his portrayal of Merrick with dignity and courage.” (Haflidason, 2001)
Fig 1: A tearful Treves after seeing Merrick
There were quite a few editing techniques used in the film such as, narrative text in the beginning, explaining how this relates to the true story. Match on match editing used for the start where the woman gets injured by the elephant. Montage shots of chimney tops and smokes were used to show the location changes as well as some shots of elephant calls, woman’s screams and panics to show the flashback and memories of what Merrick had. Music includes solemn strings from the orchestra. “The Elephant Man uses some of the devices of the horror film, including ominous music, sudden cuts that shock, and hints of dark things to come, but it's a very benign horror film, one in which "the creature" is the pursued instead of the pursuer.” (Canby, 1980)
Fig 2: Merrick being kidnapped by his previous owner
This film depicts the emotional pain and sadness of the individual but also shows how the society see him as a monster as well as stereotyping him by calling him “freak” and “it” especially when used by a small boy shows how harsh society can be. However as he moves up to the upper class of society, apart from several people who begins to accept who he is, “He still hasn’t escaped the freak show nature of these visits. It becomes clear that people aren’t visiting him out of any real interest for who he is, but that same morbid fascination that the lowest class of society exemplified.” (Ewing, 2010). Throughout the film, it is quite similar to the story of Edward Scissor hands, where the unusual becomes an everyday curiosity and fascination and where at one point goes too far and thus the unusual hides away and has a sad ending. To prove that Merrick is a human being and not a freak, he begins to recite the poem, The lord is my shepherd and when surrounded and cornered by people, he yells and pleas in desperation, “I am not an animal!! I am a human being!!” this causes the people to fall sympathetic towards him and leaves.

Fig 3: Characters who abused Merrick

The scene where Merrick is taken to see a theatre with Treves and with a special request from Mrs. Kendal, the acting of the theatre quite reflects on the childhood life of Merrick’s. At the end of the theatre show, Mrs. Kendal and the audience praises him as being the guest of the show.
No matter how people treat him, Merrick always wanted to be accepted to the society and to be treated like a proper human being, so as part of his curiosity, to try and be like a human being, he decides to sleep like one. He removes eight or nine pillows, which he usually uses to sleep with due to the heavy mass of his head and for supporting his neck, and so sleeps with only one pillow. Because of this, he died in his sleep. Though it is proved unclear whether Merrick had died of proteus syndrome or the weight of his head had affected the nerves on his neck.

List of Illustrations:

Lynch, D (1980) Film Cover:

Fig 1: Lynch, D (1980) A tearful Treves after seeing Merrick: - (accessed on 9/10/11)

Fig 2: Lych, D (1980) Merrick being kidnapped by his previous owner: - (accessed on 9/10/11)

Fig 3: Lynch, D (1980) Characters who abused Merrick: - (accessed on 9/10/11)


Francis, F (1980) The Elephant Man (1980): - (accessed on 9/10/11)

Canby, V (1980) The Elephant Man (1980)-Movie Review:– (accessed on 9/10/11)

Ewing, J.B (2010) The Elephant Man (1980): - (accessed on 9/10/11)

Haflidason, A (2001) The Elephant Man (1980): - (accessed on 9/10/11)

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