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Cinema: Sweet Ogre

4 minute read
Richard Corliss

THE ELEPHANT MAN Directed by David LynchScreenplay by Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren, and David Lynch

The most striking feature about him was his enormous head. From the brow there projected a huge bony mass like a loaf, while from the back of the head hung a bag of spongy fungus-looking skin, the surface of which was comparable to brown cauliflower. . . From the upper jaw there projected another mass of bone. It protruded from the mouth like a pink stump, turning the upper lip inside out and making of the mouth a mere slobbering aperture . . . The back was horrible, because from it hung, as far down as the middle of the thigh, huge, sack-like masses of flesh covered by the same loathsome cauliflower skin.”

So wrote the physician Sir Frederick Treves of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, who died at 27 in 1890, one of the most famous men in his country. With its peculiar mixture of propriety and prurience, Victorian England doted on real-life stories as fantastic as anything in the writings of Dickens or Conan Doyle. Jack the Ripper: the surgical knife beneath the opera cape. John Merrick: the heart of gold in the body of the world’s ugliest man. For Merrick was no imbecile. He was an intelligent young man with the romantic sensibility of a Victorian swain. London society courted the Elephant Man; great ladies gave him their photographs; Alexandra, Princess of Wales, paid him many visits. In a matter of months Merrick had gone from the sleaziest sideshows, exhibiting his deformity, to celebrity.

A legend on the film’s end credits states that it is “based upon the true life story of John Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, and not upon the Broadway play of the same title or any other fictional account.” Bernard Pomerance’s play dealt as much in symbolism as in clinical pathology; the actor playing Merrick (originally Philip Anglim, now David Bowie) used no special makeup but simply affected a question-mark posture to suggest the man’s deformities.

The film is quite another matter. John Hurt, last seen giving caesarean birth to a malignant Alien, plays Merrick in a grotesquely authentic foam latex mask that leaves the actor almost unrecognizable. Yet he captures Merrick’s humanity through his eyes and his gestures, the way he reflexively straightens his tie when a nurse enters the room, the way his voice rises and falls in the fruity arpeggios of a Covent Garden tenor. Treves described Merrick as having “the brain of a man, the fancies of a youth and the imagination of a child,” and Hurt inhabits this sweet-souled ogre with the Elphant Man’s own grace and spirit. Perhaps Hurt’s delicacy was contagious: Anthony Hopkins, who has been known to dine on the scenery, gives a scrupulously restrained peformance as Treves. Only Freddy Jones, one of Britain’s great bad actors, hams it up as Merrick’s early “owner,” Bytes. Moving through the East End streets as if on casters, Bytes is the film’s true monster — and Jones plays him like a villain out of the silent horror films.

Director Lynch, whose only previous film was the midnight cult shocker Eraserhead (made for $20,000 at the American Film Insitute), has given The Elephant Man the pace and texture of a silent film. The black-and-white film stock puts the audience at a discreet remove from Merrick’s deformity; more important, it transports the viewer to a time when nearly every film was a parable relating the victory of good over evil or misfortune. This is a tale of redemption and transcendence, of the hunchback of London Hospital, of the noble phantom who want to goto the opera, of Beauty and the Beast. In Treves’ account, though, the Beast was a Beauty. In Lynch’s hands, so is this film.

—By Richard Corliss

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