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The Elephant Man

When comedian Mel Brooks decided to branch out into film production, the first project for his fledgling Brooksfilms company was a surprising one — a film about John Merrick, the Victorian-age "Elephant Man" documented in a semi-obscure book titled "The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences" by Dr. Frederick Treves. The fact that the film was ever made at all is astounding: Producer Jonathan Sanger received the screenplay from his babysitter, who told him that her boyfriend had written it. He took it to Brooks, who was interested in making "serious films," and then proposed a young director named David Lynch, who had impressed Sanger with his film Eraserhead. Then Brooks, the executive producer, kept his own name off the film entirely so as to avoid giving audiences the wrong impression about what sort of movie it was. Once the wheels started rolling, Sanger says that their primary goal was "just to make a film that would play in a theater." So it was undoubtedly a delightful surprise to everyone involved when The Elephant Man turned out to not only be an astonishing film, but also a huge commercial success: It did very well in the U.S. and even broke box office records in Japan, and it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. The Elephant Man begins with classic Lynchian strokes — machine sounds, smoke, and elephants, superimposed over a woman's face. The elephants attack her as she screams over and over — this is the story of how the Elephant Man came to be, according to the barker at a Victorian circus sideshow. Moved by the extent of the freak's deformities, surgeon Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) brings him to London Hospital to examine him. Treves soon realizes that there's more to the man, whose name is John Merrick, than he was led to believe — Merrick is sensitive, kind, and intelligent, and has suffered terribly at the hands of his "owner." Treves invents reasons to keep Merrick at the hospital, but even there his charge is mistreated when an orderly sneaks in some of his drunken friends on a late-night bender. And then Merrick is kidnapped by the sideshow boss but refuses to perform, having had a taste of self-respect during his time with Treves. He's tortured and beaten until, with the help of the other sideshow performers, he escapes and makes his way back to Treves, who makes Merrick a celebrity in London society. In many ways it's merely a more comfortable version of the freakshow, however — Merrick has nice clothes to wear, good food to eat, and he's treated well by the most of the people he encounters, but he still remains a freakish curiosity. In the meantime, Treves begins to question his own motives in caring for Merrick, wondering if, perhaps, he's also exploiting the Elephant Man for his own benefit.

*          *          *

The Elephant Man is a remarkable film, beautiful and heart-wrenching, and full of Lynchian weirdness without any of the director's self-conscious goofiness (and in that respect similar to his 1999 The Straight Story). Shot on expensive black-and-white stock, it has an old-fashioned richness that serves the story brilliantly while showcasing Lynch's deft hand with smoke, shadow, and mood. The photography by veteran cinematographer Freddie Francis is exquisite, and John Morris' poignant score evokes the necessary period atmosphere without ever feeling heavy-handed. The cast is flawless, with big-ticket British actors turning in solid, understated performances — John Gielgud, Freddie Jones, and the amazing John Hurt, who manages to convey Merrick's intellect and dignity beneath a nightmare of prosthetics. But as much credit as Hurt deserves, the bravura performance here is by Hopkins. His performance as Treves is a wonder — a professional, Victorian man, buttoned-up and utterly self-contained, who is moved by his first sight of Merrick so much that he can merely stand there, mouth open, as tears well up in his eyes and slowly run down his face. If the most moving thing about The Elephant Man is Merrick's acquisition of dignity, then it's due to the way that Treves has given it to him — simply, honestly, and as a human being worthy of respect. When Merrick finally asks if he can be cured, Hopkins gives a slight pause and then honestly answers, "No, we can't cure you. We can care for you, but we can't cure you." Merrick's response — "I thought not" — is simply heartbreaking. Paramount's DVD offers a virtually flawless anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) — the picture is gorgeous, presenting Lynch's stunning visuals at their best, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is pleasant. Extra features include interviews with Mel Brooks, Jonathan Sanger, makeup artist Christopher Tucker, and John Hurt, who discuss the film's production history and the painstaking process of creating the prosthetics for Hurt, while a separate feature has Tucker showing off the different pieces created for the makeup effects. Director Lynch is famous for not talking about his movies — he's notably absent from the interview feature and there's no commentary track. But Lynch does make his presence known by the lack of chapter-selection, which he dislikes on DVDs of his films. Narrated photo gallery, theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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