Victorian London is the backdrop for this harrowing account of the physically impaired and disfigured Joseph Merrick (played here by John Hurt). Anthony Hopkins is the sympathetic doctor, Frederick Treves, who helps Merrick. In an age not far removed from superstitious influences, the origin of disabilities were often sought from effect of some accidental cause. Although laws regarding ‘freaks of nature’ were developing quickly, disfigured people were shunned.
Merrick himself believed that his mother had been harmed by an elephant (getting pushed into the path of traveling circus animals), and he, still in her womb, had somehow got imprinted with elephantine traits. Although medical opinions still aren’t conclusive, it’s believed that he had Proteus Syndrome, a condition of unnatural growths of flesh and bone. Despite the folkish origin he gave for his condition (rather, as Treves recorded it) Merrick knew that it was progressive; his symptoms didn’t become overtly noticeable until he was about five.
We start with a sort of nighmarish reenactment of the mother’s fright by the elephant–perhaps a bit of historical fiction, as it shows the animal tossing her aside with its trunk, instead of just frightening her. Then, a gentleman, Dr. Treves, peruses a carnival freak show; but he can’t get a peek at The Elephant Man, as the police are shutting down the “monstrous” exhibit. Quickly onto a scene of Treves in surgery, with some horrid industrial accident victim. Soon, thanks to a tip, he finds where Merrick is exhibited. So we get our introduction to the dirty, dark corners of London. And to the creepy Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones); and, then, to Merrick himself. Kept behind a curtain, in a backroom of a back street, against dimmest gaslit surroundings. In true horror movie fashion, we’re only gradually exposed to a complete view of the ‘monster.’
Soon Treves gets him admitted to the hospital, but has to overcome Carr-Gomm’s (Sir John Gielgud’s) and the staff’s objections. For the moment, Merrick is safe and well-cared for. The complete poignancy of his visit at Treves’ house is remarkable: Merrick literally drinks in the tea time scene, with Mrs. Travers (Hannah Gordon), and pictures of their kids. He’s pretty much in heaven. But not for long, as we see.
Thanks to the intervention of the Princess of Wales (Helen Ryan) Merrick is put up for life at the hospital. Problem is, the night porter (Michael Elphick) has other plans; and an opportunity–ala Mr. Bytes–to exploit Merrick. He succeeds in engineering a disgusting, abusive, debasing ‘visit.’ Bytes’ is along for his own amusement. His boy, however, sells out the porter to Treves. The head nurse sacks him.
The problem is, Bytes takes Merrick to France. Merrick’s pretty much in the same fix as he was before Treves’ intervention. Even worse–he’s caged up next to the monkeys. Fortunately, the other circus folks take pity on him, and set him free. They see him off on a steamship; then he’s on a train, back to London.
Alighting at the station, he’s mercilessly pursued by a crowd, as though he were a pestilence. Thanks to the intervention of the police, however, he’s soon reunited with Treves. Now he’s able to get back to some normality, going to the theater to see Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft). The feature is a fairy-tale, entrancing in itself. The actress pops out to dedicate the performance to Merrick, who rises and bows to a standing ovation.
We see him toying with a re-built model of the church. He decides to try and sleep lying down, which proves fatal–his head weighs so much that his neck snaps. That important detail is left unsaid, which is odd. The end.
Among the many excellent elements here, there’s very good acting. Hurt has a difficult role, and plays Merrick as an individual personality, not a type. An unexpected consequence of Merrick’s history of misery and abuse is that minor pleasures take on near-mythic properties (i.e., the tea at Treves’). Although this might not be an implicit message, it does show that pleasure is itself a sort of miracle, and not to be taken for granted.
We also see how people react to a situation based on reading-the-room. For example, the near-hysterical lynch mob mentality of the crowd–pursuing Merrick from the train station–can be sharply contrasted with his completely sympathetic reception by the theatre crowd. In a scene where he isn’t even present, the hospital board meeting, it’s funny how the dismissive board members, who want to kick Merrick out, do a complete about face when the Princess joins in, with a vote for Merrick, directly from the Queen.
The nurses, who are initially repelled by Merrick’s appearance, all come to accept, and then support him. Their behavior is a good barometer of what the ordinary decent person would do in a similar situation. Treves, though obviously an heroic figure, doubts himself. Is he so much better than Bytes? Yes…but he does benefit from Merrick indirectly.
It’s fascinating to see Hopkins in a sympathetic role; for that matter, it’s also amazing to see a David Lynch movie that’s uplifting. No question that Lynch has the gothic horror elements in place–complete with the nightmare sequences–but The Elephant Man is ultimately a life-affirming story as told here.
I’ve got some quibbles with the plot. Bytes (not his real name) wasn’t the same guy that hustled Merrick to Europe, and, although Hurt’s appearance has Merrick’s general look reasonably accurate, the most noticeable disfigurement was the additional growth to the right side of his head (readily visible in any of the contemporary photos), which isn’t really present in this rendition. And, surprisingly, unless the viewer has done some Merrick research, it looks like Merrick just goes to sleep peacefully at the end, whereas he inadvertently killed himself.
It’s not the fault of the film that it focuses on the last few years of Merrick’s life, but his youth was probably just as interesting. Maybe it would be a redundancy of horror to show the workhouse years, his trials at street-peddling, etc. This is, in any case, an important film about tolerance, not to mention a clear story of good v. evil. Lynch is able to build atmosphere and character to push this moral tale onto a convincing and compelling, even biblical level.
Farmermouse liked the head nurse bonking that bad-guy porter over the head. He gives this nine tea parties at the good Doctor’s. 9/10