The Elephant Man

The events in the life of John Merrick, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century British man with an incurable, physically deforming disease, aren't easy to speak about, and this film biography, David Lynch's second feature after his heralded debut, Eraserhead, isn't easy to watch. That doesn't mean it isn't important. With the guidance of a parent or another adult children might well learn sympathetic, humanitarian lessons from the film's narrative and understand through its mainly-silent protagonist the importance of walking in another's shoes, of finding similarities with even the most different people, of healing rather than hurting. But these valuable points of discussion are difficult lumps to swallow in a film that explores human degradation and cruelty without apology; sensitive viewers (and their parents) should be forewarned and equipped to deal with some emotional stress and a few moments of extreme tension. The film opens with an imaginary sequence of an elephant attacking a woman, presumably Merrick's mother, before establishing itself in straight-ahead narrative territory and showing us Merrick (John Hurt) in the squalor of a side-show circus, where he has been appropriated to serve the voyeurism of onlookers. After he's "discovered" by London surgeon Frederick Treeves (Anthony Hopkins), Merrick moves to a hospital, where he is allowed a small shred of dignity in the midst of Treeves' kind but questionably motivated care and the side-show machinations of a night watchman. Along the way, his disease and the suffocating confines of his environment lead to his eventual demise—even though those associated with him (Treeves especially) change for the better. A few moments in the film reveal Lynch's characteristically surrealist touch, but for the most part, he plays it straight, simply giving his protagonist's story the space and dignity it deserves.

Matt Pierce

Film Info

Title: The Elephant Man (1980)
Country of Origin: UK / US
Running Time: 124 min
Language: English
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Sound Mix: Dolby
Color: B/W
Certification: Australia: M / Finland: K-16 / Ireland: 12 / South Korea: 15 / Sweden: 15 / UK: AA (original rating) / UK: PG (video rating) / US: PG / West Germany: 12 / Canada: 14A
Releasing Company: Paramount Pictures
Producer: Stuart Cornfield, Jonathan Sanger, Mel Brooks
Director: David Lynch
Writer: Sir Frederick Treves (book), Ashley Montagu (book), Christopher DeVore (screenplay), Eric Bergren (screenplay), David Lynch (screenplay)
Cinematographer: Freddie Francis
Designer: Stuart Craig
Editor: Anne V. Coates
Composer: John Morris
Genre: Drama