The Elephant Man is how John Merrick (portrayed by John Hurt, who was nominated for an Oscar and won a BAFTA for his performance) was dubbed when appearing at the local circus show, in the 19th century, but the one thing he didn’t have was the condition of elephantitis. However, the condition is still one that cannot be cured and those with the power won’t allow his body to be released for DNA testing.
In what is based on a true story, Merrick was a young man of 21 years of age rescued from exploitative circus showman Bytes (Freddie Jones) by Doctor Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) in order to study his affliction and give him a better lease of life. As the story unfolds he is introduced to established actress Mrs Kendal (Anne Bancroft), Treves’ wife (Hannah Gordon) and specialist Mr Carr-Gomm (John Gielgud), each of whom treat him with the kindness and respect he deserved, but there’s less welcoming opinions from Mrs Mothershead (Wendy Hiller), the Nurse Ratched of her time who runs the hospital where Merrick is staying and the Night Porter (Michael Elphick, currently appearing in Eastenders and looking well past his prime), who tries to make some money out of the man and behaves towards him in a sick and disgusting manner.
Don’t watch this film expecting to find some answers or realistic reasons why Merrick became the way he was from his birth to his death in 1890, but do watch it for the staggering and tear-jerking performances from Hurt, most notably when he breaks down in front of Hannah Gordon because he just can’t accept people being nice to him after suffering brutal treatment in the circus. Hopkins is one of my favourite actors and his performances of determined characters are always his best. Classic moments also include nurse Nora (Lesley Dunlop, appearing in ITV’s Where The Heart Is at the time of writing) taking Merrick some dinner but without being forewarned of his appearance and the wanton public harrassing him and chasing him into a public toilet. Note also that it’s nearly an hour before we actually get to see what Merrick looks like.
Cameos are abound in this film. Nula Conwell, as Nurse Kathleen, used to play WPC Viv Martella in ITV’s The Bill until her character was gunned down, Birds of a Feather‘s Pauline Quirke plays “2nd whore”, R2D2’s Kenny Baker is the Plumed Dwarf, Press Gang‘s Dexter Fletcher plays Bytes’ boy and Patricia Hodge is the “Screaming Mum”. There’s also a Frederick Treves playing the part of an alderman in this film, but checking the Internet Movie Database didn’t show how, if at all, he is related to the character played by Hopkins.
David Lynch shot the film in 2.35:1 Panavision and in black and white, to evoke the feel of the period, which aids it immensely. Presented in the original 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio, this is the first time this film has been released on Blu-ray and for the most part it looks fantastic. It’s sharp and detailed and makes an excellent film look even better. Occasionally, there’s a slight shimmering on the dark areas, but while it doesn’t affect it as often, it’s still annoying when it happens and makes me wonder how this has actually come about at Optimum. Put on a very dark scene, such as when Treves first meets Merrick, and it stands out like a sore thumb. For the record, I’m watching on a Panasonic 37″ Plasma screen via a Samsung BD-P1500 Blu-ray player.
Note that a widescreen video was once released in the dim and distant past before such things became mainstream, but it wasn’t labelled as such so would’ve been a real find at the time.
As for the sound, this was only ever filmed with a mono soundtrack. Dialogue is clear and I think if a DTS or Dolby Digital 5.1 version was created with split-stereo rear effects it would take away the closeness of the atmosphere created rather than add to it in any way.
The extras are as follows:
- “Joseph Merrick: The Real Elephant Man” featurette (19:53): Elephant Man fan Jonathan Evans, an archivist at the Royal London Hospital Museum, talks about the man, the characters in the film and how well they relate to real-life events. For example, he was apparently more in control of his own life and didn’t keep getting captured and did actually sign himself up for a freak show rather than being forced into it. This is a fascinating supplemental.
- Interviews: Firstly, there’s three here with David Lynch. One at the Cartier Foundation, Paris in 2007 (14:50), entited “The Air is On Fire”, in which he meets for the first time with Michel Chion, who wrote the first book on Lynch’s Cinema back in 1992; a Q&A-style one (24:49) on several topics within the film; and also one between Lynch and director Mike Figgis (19:50). There’s also a Q&A-style interview with John Hurt (20:14).
- BD Live: Hook your Blu-ray player up online and… well, I got a ‘download error. Apparently the solution is that “The server may be temporarily unavailable. Please wait a few minutes and try again later.”, but why can’t all this info be on the disc itself? That’d be easier, surely? I got a few other error messages when I tried later. Oh well.
The menu mixes images from the film with a short piece of the opening theme playing over and over. There are English subtitles but the Chaptering is, again for Optimum, appalling with just 12 over the 123-minute running time.
Running time: 123 minutes
Cat no: OPTBD1275
Released: Sept 2009
Picture: 1080p High Definition
Sound: DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio
Languages: English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian
Subtitles: English plus 10 other languages
Widescreen: 2.35:1 (Panavision)
Disc Format: BD50
Director: David Lynch
Producers: Jonathan Sanger
Screenplay: Christopher de Vore, Eric Bergren and David Lynch
Music: John Morris
Frederick Treves: Anthony Hopkins
John Merrick: John Hurt
Mrs Kendal: Anne Bancroft
Carr-Gomm: John Gielgud
Mothershead: Wendy Hiller
Bytes: Freddie Jones
Night Porter: Michael Elphick
Mrs Treves: Hannah Gordon
Princess Alex: Helen Ryan
Fox: John Standing
Bytes’ Boy: Dexter Fletcher
Nora: Lesley Dunlop
Nurse Kathleen: Nula Conwell
Alderman: Frederick Treves
2nd whore: Pauline Quirke
Plumed Dwarf: Kenny Baker
Screaming Mum: Patricia Hodge
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.