Director: David Lynch
Screenplay: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch
Based on a Book by: Frederick Treves
And Part of Another Book by: Ashley Montagu
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, John Gielgud, Freddie Jones, Anne Bancroft, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick
Country: USA, UK
Running Time:118 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. A young up-and-coming director, who’d made a name for himself making one of the most bizarre films to come out of America (Eraserhead), directing a relatively straightforward true story set in Victorian England, in which its star’s face would always be covered by either heavy prosthetic make-up or a large canvas sack, and produced by comedy-director Mel Brooks (though he was uncredited, realising his name on the poster would confuse audiences). However, the resulting film, The Elephant Man, proved to be a great success. It did very well at the box office, considering the tone and subject matter, and remains one of David Lynch’s most critically admired films, garnering 8 Oscar nominations, even if it’s considered one of his most conventional.
The Elephant Man celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2020 and has been given a new 4K restoration, which was due to be screened in cinemas in March, though given the circumstances this might not have happened in more than a few locations. Home cinemas will have a chance to appreciate the film in all its beautifully restored glory though, as it’s hitting 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats in the UK, thanks to Studiocanal.
The film is set in late 19-century London and tells the story of John Merrick (actually called Joseph Merrick in real life and played by Sir John Hurt in the film). He was a man suffering from severe physical deformities affecting most of his body. We first meet him whilst he is exhibited by the cruel Mr Bytes (Freddie Jones) in a travelling ‘freak show’, which provides him his nickname of ‘The Elephant Man’. Dr. Frederick Treves (Sir Anthony Hopkins) sees John at the show and, fascinated by this unique case, pays Bytes to let him examine him at London Hospital, where he presents John to his colleagues. John is then sent back to Bytes, who beats him terribly. Bytes’ boy (a young Dexter Fletcher) rushes to get help from Treves, who takes John into his care in a private room in the hospital.
The hospital Governor, Mr. Carr-Gomm (Sir John Gielgud), isn’t happy about Treves housing an ‘incurable’ there, but when he meets John and realises he is an educated and sensitive man, he changes his mind and lets him stay. Once word gets around about this unusual man, John is treated like a celebrity, with illustrious guests, including a famous actress (Anne Bancroft) and Princess Alexandra (Helen Ryan), regularly paying him visits and treating him respectfully. However, Treves starts to doubt his motivations for looking after John, as his existence seems to be that of another ‘sideshow attraction’, albeit a more civilised one. Also, unbeknownst to Treves, a night porter named Jim (Michael Elphick) is selling tickets to see ‘The Elephant Man’ and sneaking undesirables in through the backdoor each night, which comes to the attention of Bytes.
I hadn’t seen The Elephant Man for God-knows how many years before this rewatch. I had it in my mind that it was Lynch-lite, seeing the director toeing the line for awards success and being of less interest than his more challenging films. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find the film is as wonderful as its original critical success suggests.
There was also more of a touch of Lynch’s signature style than I remembered. From the offset, we get a surreal, nightmarish opening, which gives an abstract view of an incident involving an elephant which John believed may have been to blame for his deformities. Away from surrealism, Lynch’s masterful use of sound design also shines through. Eraserhead before this had shown he had a knack for creating disturbing soundscapes and here he uses sound to evoke the industrial revolution, creating a vivid depiction of Victorian London.
This sense of period and place is backed up by a wonderful use of locations and production design which reflect the grim realities of the dirty streets and back alleys as well as the luxuries of the privileged members of Victorian society. These sets and locations are lit and shot with some of the most gloriously atmospheric black and white cinematography ever committed to celluloid, courtesy of the great Freddie Francis (The Innocents, Sons and Lovers, Glory).
All this exceptional craft would have been for nothing without a strong cast and this is one of the best, featuring a who’s who of great British stage and screen actors. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film with quite so many Sirs and Dames in its cast (though most were awarded long after the film, so you won’t see them dubbed as such in the credits). Hopkins and Gielgud are as excellent as always, but it’s Hurt who pulls off the unenviable task of delivering a memorable and powerful performance under mountains of makeup. He’s forced to do everything through one eye, limited body movement and a restricted voice, but captures the character’s vulnerability, grace and dignity magnificently.
Special recognition must also go to Christopher Tucker, who designed and created the makeup for the titular character. Had this looked unconvincing or comical, the film would have been ruined. According to accounts in the special features, he only had limited time to come up with it too, as originally Lynch himself was going to do the make-up but found himself not up to the task.
The film has been criticised for being a bit of a tear-jerker, designed merely to make the audience feel pity for the character, but, although it is a grim and moving experience, I think there’s more to it than that. As is made clear in the film (possibly a bit too clear in one monologue by Hopkins), there’s a suggestion that John is still being exploited during his more comfortable life in the hospital. This is constantly under question. There’s no clear answer as to whether Treves’ treatment of John is morally justified and even by the end there are hints that Treves doesn’t fully reciprocate John’s compassion towards him. The theoretically uplifting theatre sequence also has a bitter patronising aftertaste to it, in my eyes.
So, overall, it’s an incredibly well-crafted film with enough Lynchian touches and dark corners to set it apart from similarly-themed tragic ‘based-on-a-true-story’ dramas.
This new 4K restoration of The Elephant Man will be released on DVD, Blu-Ray, 4K UHD and Digital on April 6th by Studiocanal as part of their Vintage Classics range. I saw the DVD version (my Blu-ray copy got lost in the post, unfortunately) and the film looks great, even in SD. It struggles a tad on some moving shots, though that might have been an upscaling issue on my Blu-ray player and projector. Otherwise, it’s a detailed and pleasing picture. As for the audio, I found some of the dialogue wasn’t always 100% clear but this might be as intended, as the sound effects and music come through beautifully.
There are plenty of extra features included too:
– NEW – BFI Q&A with Jonathan Sanger
– NEW – Interview with stills photographer Frank Connor
– Interview with David Lynch
– Interview with John Hurt
– Mike Figgis interviews David Lynch
– The Air Is On Fire: Interview with David Lynch at Cartier Foundation
– Joseph Merrick, The Real Elephant Man
– The Terrible Elephant Man Revealed
– Behind The Scenes Stills Gallery
There’s no commentary, but the wealth of interviews included on the disc are enough to make up for it. There’s a fair amount of repetition of information within the material, but the production was an interesting one so it doesn’t get tiresome. There are some great anecdotes in the first interview with Lynch for instance. It includes some interesting thoughts on moving to digital filmmaking too. The ‘conversation with’ Mike Figgis and Lynch is a bit more flowery, talking about his working practises in general, but it’s still illuminating and well worth a listen.
I found the piece on the real story of Joseph Merrick fascinating, showing how Lynch changed quite a lot of details, particularly the chronology, but stayed true to the essence of what happened for the most part.
A strong package then, and one that comes highly recommended. I’ll be sure to track down the Blu-ray to upgrade myself.