The Elephant Man

 

Will Douglas brought a masterpiece to the ‘Cinema in English’ program at the Teatini on April 6th. The most surprising thing about ‘The Elephant Man’ is that it was directed by a young man of thirty-three who had been born in Missoula, Montana. David Lynch had never set foot in the UK before he arrived to take up the camera. The result was the sort of Anglo-American cooperation both sides of the Atlantic can be proud of. The ‘special relationship’ in this case was not simply an agreement between politicians to wage another war somewhere on the planet.

In creating one of the best ever film reconstructions of late Victorian Britain, a treasure of detail, Lynch of course had the help of remarkable native talent. William Hurt and Anthony Hopkins were actors at their peak. Freddie Francis, a veteran cinematographer of the British industry demonstrated his mastery of black and white photography. Just as important, shooting in 1979, Lynch could use now destroyed urban sites that dated from deep in the nineteenth century.

Since Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ of 1932, monsters have been at home in our neighborhood movie-houses. Currently they have become so abundant as to produce a collective yawn in the audience. Electronic gimmickry can fit them out with so many metallic or reptilian do-dads they resemble a blacksmith’s nightmare. That’s why another look at ‘The Elephant Man’ was so timely. It cleansed our palates after a long, stodgy meal. The story centers on the basic problem of the deformed. They suffer not only from their medical condition but from the reactions of ‘normal’ people around them. To live in the glare of horrified curiosity doubles their pain. John Hurt as the afflicted John Merrick shows with the utmost delicacy how enlightened fellow Victorians were gradually awakened to the man within the apparent freak. 

 

 

Peter Byrne

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