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Film: The Elephant Man (Studio Canal)

03 April 2020

Stephen Brown revisits a film that remains a classic after 40 years

Studio Canal

John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man

John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man

THE film The Elephant Man (Cert. 12A) abounds with Christian sensibilities. This 40th-anniversary re-release is due on Monday in a digital, DVD, BD & 4K UHD Collector’s Edition. John Hurt (a son of the vicarage) plays the title role with dignity and pathos.

John Merrick’s congenital deformities resemble an elephant’s hide. The surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescues him for research from a Victorian freak-show. Friendship develops. A full half-hour elapses before we get sight of John. It allows time to see him through Treves’s eyes as, in Walt Whitman’s’ phrase “a man divine as myself”.

Hopkins’s sensitive performance sharply contrasts with sensation-seeking fairground crowds. When John, loving the Book of Common Prayer, recites the 23rd Psalm, hospital staff and high society realise that they are in the presence of love. Michael Elpick’s porter, replete with villainous bombast, typifies working-class unconcern. The more chilling, insidious face of evil belongs to Freddie Jones as Bytes, Merrick’s “proprietor”. Yet, after all Merrick’s maltreatment, he is able to say: “My life is full, because I know that I am loved.”

His growth in wisdom and moral stature transforms ugliness into something beautiful for God. When model-making becomes an option, it is a cathedral that he creates. The original — for this film is based on a true story — is in the Royal London Hospital Museum.

Though this is a more straight­forward film than Eraserhead and Twin Peaks, the director, David Lynch, inserts puzzling effects, such as machinery noises. It is Freddie Francis’s glorious black-and-white cinematography, however, that tri­umphs. This is a work, though occa­sionally mawkish, replete with heroic virtue. It is a fitting com­panion for Holy Week.


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