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THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)

The Elephant Man - CoverStudioCanal’ have recently released the 40th-anniversary edition of ‘The Elephant Man’. It was directed by David Lynch; it starred Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones, Michael Elphick, and John Gielgud; and it lasts for 124-minutes. Plus, as an extra added bonus, the Blu-ray edition comes with two documentaries, a staged BFI Q&A with Jonathan Sanger, as well as interviews with David, John, and Frank Connor. Please enjoy.


The Elephant Man [Blu-ray]


THE STORY:
Hello, Mister Merrick (John Hurt). Please take a seat, my friend, and when you’re ready, try to tell me something about yourself. Something about your past, if you like! Or something about your current condition! Either way, I need to hear you speak so I know that you can understand the words coming out of my mouth. Otherwise, Mister Carr Gomm (John Gielgud) won’t allow you to stay here at the Royal London Hospital.

Well, by all accounts, your life hasn’t been an easy one to endure. Not only because of the abuse you’ve received from your dubious 'business partner', Bytes (Freddie Jones), but in addition to this, you also appear to be deformed, severely deformed, with lesions covering your entire body, which makes it difficult for you to move, breathe, and even speak.

So come on, John, please try to say something to me, Doctor Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), just so I can inform the governor that you will be of sound mind while in our care. But then again, that’s most probably why what next transpires goes, slurp-slurp-slurp, when an elephant man roars. As a doctor and a patient form a pact - members of high society deserve a smack - a media celebrity gets hijacked - and at the end of the day, please remember, he’s not an animal, but he sure is a class act.




THE REVIEW:
Before we begin, please allow me to make one thing perfectly clear. Yes, I’m fully aware that ‘The Elephant Man’ isn’t totally accurate and does possess a number of factual mistakes relating to the title character. Mistakes about his given name (it was Joseph, not John), his harrowing abduction (which didn’t happen), his mistreatment by the night porter (who never existed), as well as his relationship with ‘Bytes’ (real name, Tom Norman, who was a well-respected showman that treated Joseph very, very well, both on a personal and a financial level). In fact, a good deal of his life was a fairly adventurous affair, despite suffering from a physical deformity (a combination of neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome) and dying way before his time.

The Elephant Man - Freddie Jones and Fletcher Dexter
Well, according to the corresponding documentary, Joseph Carey Merrick was born in Leicester, England, on the 5th of August, 1862, and died in the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, on the 11th of April, 1890. He was twenty-seven years old when he passed away, and by all accounts, he was a fairly smart individual who did the best under the circumstances. As a child, he went to school and was cared for by his immediate family, until his mother died, his father remarried, and his stepmother sent him away to a workhouse when his condition suddenly progressed. That’s when he decided to enter the labor market by working in several odd jobs, such as selling matches on the streets, for instance, before joining a traveling freak show that eventually took him to the East End of London. Once there, his story continued to evolve and change at a rather rapid pace, and in many ways, serves as the basic blueprint for this film. This fairly inaccurate film, but a great one nonetheless.

You see, if you can look past some of the historical errors I’ve already mentioned, then I’m sure you’d enjoy watching this melodrama as it manages to tell a black and white story that’s smudged with different shades of grey. On the one hand, the bright side of this story is represented by a selection of wholesome characters who always try to do the right thing under the circumstances, such as John, the doctor, and the nurses that looked after him. While on the other hand, the dark side is represented by several mean and nasty characters who think more about themselves than they do of other people, such as Bytes, the night porter, and the high society snobs. And in between these two, there’s the grey, the grey questions that pop-up out of the blue and smudge this adventure with a variety of different hues, ranging from the doctor’s motivations for allowing John to interact with others, all the way to what it must have been like for him living with the condition he was inflicted with.

The Elephant Man - Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt
Well, let’s face it, it couldn’t have been easy, that’s for sure, because his speech was slurred, his mobility was limited, and most of his body was covered in lesions and warts. What’s more, he couldn’t sleep in a conventional manner and could only earn an income by capitalizing on his constantly evolving deformity. Similarly, we also have to take into consideration that he was living in an era where medicine was primitive, technology was in its infancy, and society, in general, was split between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' (as reflected in the Jack the Ripper murder case of 1888 and the diverse political climate).

So, as you can see, an awful lot of information needed to be filtered out in order to condense the film's actual plot, which is why I think we should forgive it for its negatives and praise it for its positives. After all, it's a very moving movie, with a great style (Victorian Gothic), a superb sound design (echoing, surreal, and ethereal), and an overall aesthetic that's broad in scope yet focused in tone, including things like sterile corridors, dank dwellings, period costumes, well-researched prosthetics, and elegant homes, theatres, and offices.

The Elephant Man - Real
Anyway, that’s enough of that for the time being, because now is a pretty good time for us to sit back, relax, and check out the following filmic facts: (1) ‘Universal’ first released this $5 million production in New York, New York, on the 2nd of October, 1980, and eventually clawed back $26 million at the Box Office. (2) The screenplay for this film was based on two books. The first one was written in 1923 by Frederick Treves and called, ‘The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences’, whereas the second one was written in 1971 by Ashley Montagu and called, ‘The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity’. (3) One of the taglines used to promote this picture, states, ‘I am not an animal! I am a human being! I… am… a man’. (4) The majority of this movie was shot inside ‘Shepperton Studios’, Surrey, ‘Lee International Studios’, Wembley, as well as on location throughout various parts of the English city of London. This includes Liverpool Street Train Station, the Royal Horseguards Hotel, the National Liberal Club, the London Hospital, St Mary Overies Dock, South Bank, Shad Thames, Clink Street, Broadgate, Butler’s Wharf, Tower Bridge, Westminster, Hackney, Whitehall Court, Whitechapel Road, Southwark, and Lambeth. (5) Sir John Gielgud, who played the hospital governor in this film, once performed opposite the real-life character Anne Bancroft played in this film, Madge Kendall, the actress. (6) The comedian, Mel Brooks, produced this biopic and deliberately had his name removed from the credits, otherwise, some people might have thought it was a comedy, not a serious drama.


The Elephant Man - John Hurt and Anne Bancroft


The Elephant Man - John Hurt & Hannah Gordon
In closing my review of ‘The Elephant Man’, I would now like to rank each key performance in order of importance. So, at the top of my list, I would like to select the stars of the show, John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins, because the two of them did an amazing job at depicting the humane side of their respective characters. In Anthony’s case, he played Frederick Treves as a caring yet conflicted doctor, whereas in John’s case, he played Mister Merrick as a tortured soul seeking to find acceptance. Up next, I’d like to single out two great actors generally known for starring on British television, Freddie Jones and Michael Elphick, as they were both able to play the opposite side of the equation. Or to be more specific about it, the evil side, with Freddie playing Bytes as if he were a slippery slug who stains the streets he slithers on, while Michael, played the night porter as if he were a brute, a bully, and a right bastard that would do anything for some easy money. And as for the rest of the cast? Well, they were magnificent as well. With a notable mention going out to John Gielgud (Carr Gomm), Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Kendal), Wendy Hiller (Mothershead), Lesley Dunlop (Nurse Nora), and Hannah Gordon (Mrs. Treves), for supporting this film in more ways than one, both on a narrative and emotional level in order to give it more substance and gravitas.

Anyway, all that aside, and on the whole, I would just like to say that this movie is a magnificent movie because despite being factually inaccurate, it was still emotionally rewarding, and taught us that life is precious, perception is everything, and caring and cash aren’t mutually exclusive.

THE RATING: A+

THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) Reviewed by David Andrews on March 30, 2020 Rating: 5

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