Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Elephant Man’s Circus Act Struggles to Keep Audience Entertained

The Elephant Man

This month the LAMBs in the Directors Chair series is shining the spotlight on David Lynch. I decided to take advantage of this by finally watching one of the few films of his that I had yet to see, The Elephant Man. While I knew the film was based on a true story I really did not know what to expect based on the other Lynch films I had seen. David Lynch is one of those directors who can either blow you away with his brilliance (i.e. Mulholland Dr., Blue Velvet, etc.) or leave you scratching your head in confusion (i.e. Lost Highway). Surprisingly the film falls in the latter category for me but not for the reasons you might expect.

The Elephant Man tells the tale of John Merrick (John Hurt), a man suffering from a congenital disease, who spends the bulk of his life working in a “Freak Show” in 19th century Victorian England. Nicknamed The Elephant Man, Merrick must cover his face and body whenever he goes out in public. Disfigured and unable to speak clearly, Merrick is constantly abused and made fun of by most of society. It is only when a surgeon, Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), takes an interest in Merrick does his life start to change. With the help of Treves and a highly regarded actress, Mrs. Kendal (Ann Bancroft), Merrick is able to experience life not as The Elephant Man but as a regular man.

Now it could be that my expectations were too high for the film, especially considering that the film received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, but The Elephant Man never really reeled me in. In fact, I was somewhat confused by what people found so fascinating about the film. Sure the Academy loves to heap praise on stories about individuals overcoming their disabilities, but there is nothing in The Elephant Man that has not been done better elsewhere.

The film feels stunted on several levels. It was as if Lynch was quickly giving the abbreviated “Cliff Notes” version of the events. Scenes do not flow into each other smoothly, conversations are abruptly ended for no reason, and ideas are never fully realized. A perfect example of this is when Treves stops for a moment to question who is really benefitting from his relationship with Merrick. One would expect this line of thought to be explored in greater detail but it is swiftly dropped and never really brought up again. Instead Lynch fills the screen with endless melodrama that is not particularly eventful.

David Lynch is a director who has proven over the course of his career that he can tell a straightforward dramatic story, most notably in the film The Straight Story, yet here he seems to be handcuffed creatively. There are glimpses of the David Lynch we have all grown to love, or hate depending on your viewpoint, in the dream sequence and the opening and closing of the film. Yet these moments are fleeting and there is very little that holds the distinctive Lynch stamp.

The saving graces in the film are the performances by Ann Bancroft and John Hurt. Bancroft in particular really surprised me in her brief role. She brought a level of humanity to the film that Hopkins never seems to achieve in his rather wooden performance. Hurt is also good as The Elephant Man though it is not until the halfway point that his performance really shines. Still these elements are not enough to cure the dullness of the film. Again, maybe my expectations of The Elephant Man were too high, but I just do not agree with the level of praise that most seem to see.


  1. Interesting review, I will admit that it's been a while since I saw this and my memory of it is very vague. But I do remember being very impressed by it.

    I remember loving the whole atmosphere, it's almost some kind of Gothic horror in a way. Also I admired the honest look at the darker side of human nature, and how we react to those who are different from us. I liked it a lot.
    But you do make some interesting points, and you're certainly not the first to dislike it, but I can't really agree with you on this one.

  2. Nice review CS. I have not seen this film, though it is one that I have always wanted to see. I'm sure I'll check it out some day, but i'll know not to keep expectations too high.

  3. @Jack – It could have been my mood, or maybe my expectations, but the film just did not work for me. While it does show the darker side of human nature, the “everyone should be respected for what’s on the inside” moral came off very television movie of the week for me. The scene where the people storm into his room to abuse him comes off as comical instead of terrifying. Like you said, this is a film that we will have to agree to disagree on.

    @Andy – I went in expecting way too much from the film. I would say that you should see it has I am most likely in the minority when it comes to those who did not like the film.

  4. Within the next month I plan to get into Lynch - Elephant Man - Velvet - M. Drive - Eraserhead - etc

    Great review!

  5. @Duke – Lynch is definitely a director that every film lover should experience at least once. Love him or hate him, his films are unique to say the least. Eraserhead and Inland Empire are the only films of his that I have not seen yet.


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