I have made no secret in my previous reviews of Freaks and Mask that I have a fascination with sincere films regarding people who cannot fit comfortably into society because of physical abnormalities. To be more honest, I usually have a love/hate relationship with them. As a disabled person who gets public stares everywhere he goes at best to ignorant personal question, unsolicited advice on how to handle my disabilities, and outright scoffing at best, I both learn from, but revile the memories dredged up by said films.
But The Elephant Man different. It is definitely a difficult film to watch even if you do not possess the empathy for Joseph Merrick that I do. The film is an earnest effort to examine how people react to a severely deformed man, and how such reactions affect his psyche. Take it from me, it is about as accurate with both efforts as a film can get without having been made by someone in Merrick’s position.
Merrick, called John here rather than Joseph because Dr. Frederick Treves change it in his notes while managing Merrick’s medical care, suffers from a severely deforming disease. The disease the real Merrick suffered from is as hotly debated among doctors and forensic experts today as the true identity of Jack the Ripper is with historians and criminologist. But for get that. It is not a important point. What is important is Merrick’s place in the world and how he reacts in his journey to finding it.
Merrick finds himself in three different worlds. At one point, he is a freak to be gawked at by onlookers. In another, he is a charity case boy well intentioned caregivers, but still essentially imprisoned in a hospital. Finally, he ends up as the toast of British high society. He is a fad to them. Someone cool to know, but never accepting him fully into their world. Those are the only three possible things Merrick can be. He realizes none of the choices are all that great, so he takes matters into his own hands, indulging in the one bit of normalcy which he can--sleeping on his back. He knows it will be fatal because of his head deformities, but he also knows there is nothing left for him in this life, either. He will forever be apart from it.
The famous line in which he screams at a mocking crowd,"’I am not an animal!” tells the whole story. He has to convince himself he is truly a human being as much as he does anyone else. The phrase normal is what everyone else is and you are not is poppycock. There are people for whom any semblance of life is out of reach. There is no way to convince them otherwise.
The Elephant Man would make my all time top five list of films. It would probably be in the top three. John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Treves have wonderful performances. The film is directed by David Lunch, who tones down his usual existential style of filmmaking for something far more approachable, yet very powerful. If you watch The Elephant Man, and I highly recommend you do, it will weigh on your mind for a long time. It was a critical and financial success back in 1980, and has withstood the test of time. The Elephant Man, still gnaws at me no matter how many times I watch it.
Rating: ***** (out of 5)