Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Elephant Man

David Lynch is best known for making bizarre films, and that sneaks into The Elephant Man just a bit, with some dreamlike imagery involving the death of the titular character's mother. But for the most part he plays things straight, telling the simple human story of an extremely deformed man who grew up in Victorian England. You can see why Lynch would be attracted to the project, though he doesn't go too wild with it; the appearance of John Merrick is close to but actually slightly less grotesque than that of the real Joseph Merrick, partially due to the limits of what makeup can do. Still, it's an accurate enough depiction of his story, not intended to disturb but more to inspire. Merrick's story is ultimately a sad one, but it's told with grace and skill that seems honest without being exploitative.

Anthony Hopkins is a doctor who discovers Merrick being shown as the elephant man in a carnival freak show and brings him back to his hospital for study. At first he seems only interested in the scientific advancements and attention that can be gotten from such an unheard of collection of deformities, but he soon learns that Merrick is more intelligent than initially assumed and develops a friendship with him. There are a couple barriers that get thrown in their way - others at the hospital are not keen on having an incurable case taking up a room, and other people aren't quite so kind to someone with such an appearance. There's ultimately a peaceful resolution for the characters, and the film ends with a particularly beautiful and well-considered sequence. The black and white works well for the story, making it easier to buy Merrick's appearance and generally the cinematography sells the setting smartly. Hopkins is very good, and John Hurt does an excellent job of humanizing Merrick despite working in pretty difficult conditions. There are only a few glimpses of what makes Lynch a unique filmmaker, but the movie doesn't really need his brand of weirdness to be good.

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