Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Elephant Man (1980)

Stomping Success

The tragic tale of Joseph (AKA John) Merrick is enough to bring tears to the eyes of the most stoic individual. In the hands of David Lynch his story testifies to both terrible cruelty and extraordinary compassion. The emotive script is all the more powerful because it is true.

Doctor Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) is the man that rescues the severely disfigured Merrick (John Hurt) from his life as a circus freak. While providing Merrick with shelter at his London hospital, the kindly medic begins to strike a lasting friendship with his patient. Alas, cruelty lurks in even the safest of havens. Therefore Merrick's tormentors are able to return and exact their wicked fun.

Lynch’s most enduring masterpiece evokes a twinned sense of appalling melancholy and optimistic confirmation of the indefatigable human spirit. Yes, there is hope that true happiness can be felt no matter how dire the circumstances.

The Elephant Man is most affecting when challenging the viewer to question the characters’, and our own, fascination with the unfortunate Merrick. Is Treves ultimately exploitative of his friend? Is this movie simply a variation of the archaic freak shows it deplores? I would answer both in the negative but that certainly doesn’t mean they are not valid questions. The fact the film willingly poses these questions is a powerful testimony to the sincerity of its approach.

As a pair of thespian heavyweights, few come bigger than Hopkins and Hurt. The former gives one of his finest performances as the charitable doctor. However, the ever-reliable Welshman is overshadowed by Hurt’s heartbreaking turn, conveyed from beneath countless layers of make-up effects. The final five minutes alone provide Hurt with an ample platform from which to stake his claim to the Academy Award which so unjustly eluded him.

Although the British film industry is repeatedly written off by critics and punters alike, The Elephant Man showcases what cinematic treats this small isle is capable of. For once the focus isn’t on an aristocratic estate or the humble kitchen sink. Indeed, Britannia can tell tales of extraordinary people living incredible lives, suffused with tender pathos and surprise. Watch it, celebrate it, cherish it.


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