Time has been very kind to David Lynch’s haunting and astoundingly atmospheric take on the story of deformed 19th century freak show refugee Joseph Merrick (the mistake of calling him ‘John’ is that of his doctor and ‘saviour’ Frederick Treves, passed on to the film). The apparent masterstroke of shooting the film in black and white defeats any attempt to date it beyond the Victorian period, though it was released in 1980. The authentic 19th-century hospital interiors and grimy London locations were captured in almost their last months before the Docklands renovation of the early eighties levelled them all, which only adds to the lost and dream-like quality of the work.
Made in fairly short order after Eraserhead, Elephant Man retains the oppressive and industrial sound-design of the former, though the hissing of Henry’s radiator transforms here into the sussurant background noise of the gas lamps at the London Hospital where brilliant and ambitious surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) fights to protect the hideously deformed and abused John Merrick (John Hurt) from his former ‘master’, the fictitious compound character of the showman Bytes (played to absolute perfection by the superb Freddie Jones).
Merrick is an innocent and beautiful soul with a hopelessly romantic disposition, living under the odorous mantle of hatred from a world that abhors his terrible physical imperfection, which he is nonetheless constrained to display commercially in freak shows to eke out a living . When the medical phenomenon of ‘freak-hunting’ drives Treves to seek out and exhibit Merrick for the Royal Society, he inadvertently forges a bond that will change his life and make his career, as well as redeeming the miserable existence of the hapless Merrick, who will close his short life respected and visited by London society.
But Elephant Man plays cruelly with this fairy-tale ambience, as the dream of sanctity is shattered by the bullying cruelty of a night-porter (Michael Elphick) who conducts paid tours of drunken pub-goers to see ‘the monster’, and who is – as Treves later observes – himself the monster of the movie. Merrick’s subsequent abduction back into the cruel service of Bytes is a rather Dickensian distortion of history, but it does allow for the touching scene where the other ‘freaks’ in the French sideshow demonstrate their superior humanity by helping Merrick return to London.
In a true cascade of casting-skill and serendipity, every performance in the movie is a gem: John Gielgud delivers a measured aristocracy as the hospital head who must wrestle with his conscience over Merrick’s fate; Hurt himself projects both the pain and joy of the dreamer Merrick – an incredible achievement under the sheer weight of make-up, and his Academy Award nomination (one of eight for Elephant Man, which all outrageously failed) removed any reason for actors to complain about working under prostheses; but the emotional weight of the piece remains with the beleaguered restraint and dignity of Anthony Hopkins as the doctor tormented both by sympathy for Merrick’s plight and his willingness to exploit his friend for his own career, and Hopkins’ role in Elephant Man remains one of the best – and most subtle – acting performances I have ever seen.
John Morris’s poignant score plays with the theme of a child’s music-box, invoking both the innocence and suffering of Merrick, whilst we can be grateful that then-established film director Freddie Francis was willing to step behind the lens once again as cinematographer to provide the atmospheric chiaroscuro of The Elephant Man. No-one now living can really say what London might have looked or felt like in the 1880s, but Francis and Lynch capture a popular conception better within the narrow constraints of the story than many a Dickens adaptation has done, and it certainly ‘feels’ authentic.
The quality of the transfer in this edition seems a little inferior to that of the region 1, with clarity, sharpness and density slightly reduced by comparison. Additionally it lacks the comprehensive choice of Dolby audio in the region 1. Also – as usual – this Optimum release is overloaded with pre-content corporate stings, but they do end eventually…
Extras:This is not a ‘vanilla’ edition, as it contains new and worthwhile interviews with Hurt and Lynch but annoyingly lacks the excellent documentary ‘The Elephant Man revealed’ from the region 1 release, which also contains a fascinating behind the scenes look at Elephant Man make-up wizard Christopher Tucker and a narrated photo gallery. At least this version has scene access, though both releases lack a commentary. Each comes with the standard theatrical trailer. It would be nice to see the extras on both releases combined into a two-disc edition in the future. If you can’t wait for that and you’re as big a fan of The Elephant Man as I am, you might have to buy both editions in the meantime.
Joseph Merrick: The Real Elephant Man (19.57)Jonathan Evans, archivist of the Royal London Hospital Museum, gives a fascinating insight into the historical and medical background of the real Joseph Merrick.
Interview with John Hurt (20.14)A nice new interview that covers some of the ground not covered in the region 1 edition, but also lacks a lot of what was revealed there.
Interview with David Lynch (24.50)This is a very welcome addition to this release, as Lynch is absent from the otherwise-excellent half-hour documentary on the region 1 release, and is fairly forthcoming in this chat.
– film – extras
The Elephant Man is released on August 4th, RRP at £17.99