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The Elephant Man

April 16, 2011

664. The Elephant Man
Directed by David Lynch
USA/UK, 1980
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Rachel
First viewing

Synopsis:

Biopic of Joseph Merrick (referred to in the film as John Merrick), a young man with severe physical deformities which lead to him being nicknamed The Elephant Man.

Merrick (John Hurt) is part of a freak show in the East End of London, where he is abused by Bytes (Freddie Jones), his tyrannical “owner.” Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) visits the freak show and becomes professionally interested in Merrick‘s afflictions. He makes an arrangement with Bytes to take Merrick to a scientific lecture. However, upon his return, Merrick is savagely beaten by Bytes, and Treves becomes more involved in Merrick’s life than he originally planned.

Merrick is immediately installed in Treves’s hospital and over the coming days Treves realises that the man he thought was imbecilic is actually very intelligent. Treves sets out to bring Merrick the dignity and respect he deserves.

Essential Scene:

Finding one essential scene was very difficult. I’ve decided upon a small but very touching scene rather than a dramatic one. I believe this scene is based on fact, although it wasn’t Treves’s wife that Merrick was meeting when this occurred. 

Dr. Treves has invited Merrick to his home. Merrick nervously stands alone but avidly eyes up the well-decorated room as Dr. Treves walks in with his wife.

Treves: Mr. Merrick, I’d like you to meet my wife, Anne. Anne, this is John Merrick.

Anne (Hannah Gordon) is visibly anxious, but kind and courteous. She smiles and offers her hand for a handshake.

Anne: I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr. Merrick.

Merrick takes her hand.

Merrick: I’m… I’m very pleased.

Merrick’s gaze leaves her face and he begins to sob softly.

Treves: What is it? What’s the matter?

Merrick: [between sobs] It’s just that I… I’m not used.. to being treated so well… by so beautiful a woman.

Thoughts:

Phew, this one was a weeper. Perhaps I was easily taken in by sentimentality, but then usually I’m too cynical.

Although the (possibly over-dramatized) maltreatment and abuse of Merrick in the film is horrific, what affected me more than anything was the kindness that Merrick was shown from various members of society and, of course, Dr. Treves. Whether or not this occurred because Merrick was the “in” thing is to be debated, but those moments were incredibly moving.

However, I can assure those wondering where the David Lynch touch has gone that there is still an element of Lynchian unease. The Victorian era was full of the macabre, and Lynch subtly explores it. Merrick resides in two worlds; the sideshow backstreets and the comfortable society dwellings, and the two worlds mingle with eerie delicacy. Merrick doesn’t know when his days of freakshows and ridicule will come back with a bang, and that makes for nervous viewing at times. Lynch’s enigmatic touch also comes to play with sequences in which the viewer is unsure whether they are witnessing a factual flashback, or a strange dream.

At the very least, The Elephant Man is worth watching to get to know Joseph Merrick. Merrick’s gratefulness towards his new friendships and his childlike enthusiasm for the simple things in life stay with you long after you’ve seen the film.

For more information on Joseph Merrick, visit josephcareymerrick.com.

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