The Victorians liked to be entertained and the usual freak shows that did their rounds were of the very best entertainment for them. Little was known of the true medical problems that these people endured resulting in them making money through their afflictions. One young gentleman we have all heard of is Joseph Merrick: The Elephant Man.
Many books have been written about him but one film that screamed to be watched was the 1980 film The Elephant Man directed by David Lynch and starring John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins. I had never actually seen it before, in fact it has been sat on my shelf with the other Lynch movies for years, I decided to watch it with a little trepidation. Why? Well someone once told me that it was the saddest film they had ever watched. I certainly wasn’t prepared for how I felt or what I saw neither was I prepared for the lasting impression a film would have on me.
The Elephant Man is the tale of Joseph Merrick (scripted as John in the film) whose deformities allowed him to become a spectacle in a freak show; a job of his own choosing due to poverty and his inability to find work. A surgeon from a London hospital, Frederick Treves was able to take him away from the brutality of his “employer” and help him to become well whilst introducing him to his medical peers. The Doctor is fully aware that he cannot be cured but does help him find a permanent home at the hospital, away from any harm or ridicule. We follow Merrick’s life up to his death at just 27 years old.
Lynch has managed to find a balance between the detailed aesthetic of the time and the depth of the characters. Whilst we feel that we are walking the foggy streets of East London, we are also deeply involved in the life of Merrick – feeling every inch of his pain and being jubilant when he finds happiness in normal everyday events. It is quite the journey and our emotions are thrown from pillar to post, from anger to sadness to happiness – it’s quite exhausting but worth every second of it.
It is a wonderful piece of cinema that hits you in the heart with its raw portrayal of true human suffering and happiness.
The BFI have a great video about the make-up effects on the film, CLICK HERE to have a look.