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Elephant Man (The Criterion Collection), The

Paramount // R
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ryan Keefer | posted October 18, 2020 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

I forget if I've watched The Elephant Man, or maybe it's because I'm more than familiar with people's takeaways from it, whether it's John Merrick, or the more familiar faces of British actors that are part of the ensemble, but any time you can get the words "David Lynch" and "Criterion Collection" together in one sentence, well that's just something you've gotta do.

Lynch co-wrote the script and directed the film inspired by the life of Joseph Merrick, known in the film as John Merrick, born with horrible disfigurements which cause him to walk about town with a mask over his head and spend most of his life indoors, going out occasionally to make spare change in a carnival freak festival under the watchful eye of a tortuous mentor. He is discovered by Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins, Silence of the Lambs), who is struck by Merrick's appearance and takes him into the hospital where he works, with the hopes of getting him acclimated to civilized society while learning more about his illness. He finds that Merrick (John Hurt, Hellboy II) is a man who is quiet but is gentle and apparently well-read, and his humanity touches Treves as much as it does Carr Gomm (John Gielgud, Arthur), Treves' supervisor and apparent hospital manager. They, and others, try to reciprocate humanity to Merrick over the course of the brief time they know him.

Lynch's reputation since this film seems to proceed him, but he has always had a sense of knowing the emotion to hit when it is softer and The Elephant Man is evidence of it. There is nothing else that the characters have to do really other than express decency, even love, despite having to overcome, well, the elephant in the room (I'm sorry, I swear). Everyone knows Merrick's screaming "I am not an animal!" but the movie is perfectly crystallized with John goes to Frederick's house for tea and meets his wife (Hannah Gordon, Made of Honor). She is reduced to tears as John talks about being neglected by his parents, and it is shattering. He did nothing wrong, and was punished for it. Mrs. Treves knows this and Gordon's execution of the scene is heart wrenching. On the flip side, seeing Anne Bancroft (The Graduate) as Mrs. Kendal, a well-known London playwright, express nothing but acceptance to John is wonderful. Bancroft's husband Mel Brooks is one of the film's producers (yes, really!) and certainly her merits speak for themselves, and she could have easily treated her work in the film as a luxury but she is wonderful.

Hurt's performance as Merrick is also up to the task. Seeing him find Merrick's voice as he gets back into proper living is compelling just as it is his physical work to deal with all the makeup involved (he likened it to moving like a corkscrew given Merrick's physicial condition), and having him want some sense of normalcy for himself is beautiful and ultimately a touch haunting in a way, given how the film ends. You get the sense that those who met Joseph Merrick may have felt the same way.

The Elephant Man shows us that decency and humanity are still things of value in 2020 just as they may were when the film was made in 1980 or when Merrick was walking around late 19th century London. Lynch gives us beauty from horror and it is an accomplishment for someone in their first feature film and big studio production, and gave us a glimpse of that magic as well. For both narrative and history, the film remains special.

The Blu-ray:
The Video:

The 2.35:1 widescreen restored transfer was supervised by Lynch, who also worked on new color correction for this as well. The clarity and detail look superb for a film about to enter its fifth decade, with stray hairs and facial pores and grain discernible during viewing, and detail within the prosthetics appearing better than expected. Black levels are steady throughout and present a film contrast, and overall Criterion (or Studiocanal in this case) has done a fantastic job.

The Audio:

The LCPM stereo track was also restored ahead of this release to reduce any dropouts or chirping, and as the accompanying booklet discusses, a 5.1 surround track just was not up to par for this. Dialogue is clear and well-balanced, the music is clear and the crowd noise for the play seems to have a level of immersion to it. The soundtrack goes stride for stride with the transfer, a nice technical effort all around.

Extras:

Probably as good a treatment that a Lynch film could provide that didn't include a full-blown commentary track or some other goodie. "Room to Dream" (1:09:52) includes Lynch and Kristine McKenna, reading from their book of the same name, which is as I understand it a memoir/retelling of sorts. Anyway, this particular part of it covers the film, where Lynch was at that point and the like. A series of interviews follow, the first is a 2009 piece with Hurt (20:04) where he talks about why he did the film, improvising and rehearsing for this one, and working with Hopkins and Gielgud, and doing Heaven's Gate at the same time as this. He talks about how Lynch worked, and on the reception of the film and any souvenirs he kept from it. Next is a 2019 segment with Frank Connor (25:18), who served as stills photographer on the film, and he talks about his backstory a bit, and shares his thoughts on the crew Lynch put together. He covers the choices made and challenges involved, and shares some production anecdotes, all the while with some of his work interspersed throughout. Following that is a 2018 interview with producer Jonathan Sanger (24:27) at a BFI Q&A session that sounds like a posthumous appreciation of Hurt's work? Anyway, he talks about the story and getting Brooks and Lynch aboard, securing Merrick's bones for the prosthetics used in the film and Hurt's vocals in it, which remain intact. Lynch appears in a 2009 interview (24:40) where he covers some of the same ground that he did at "Room", and talks about meeting Brooks, and talks about working in London and with the crew, along with the evolution of filming and the legacy of this particular film.

Next are some archival material, starting with Lynch at AFI in 1981 (50:45) with things a little more fresh in the mind about the film and on film. "The Terrible Elephant Man Revealed" (30:11) is a 2001-produced look at the film, with interviews from Brooks and Sanger on getting the film made, and the impressions of the cast and crew on the story and on each other, and the challenge of getting the makeup done. It's a retrospective featurette, nothing jaw-dropping here. "Joseph Merrick: The Real Elephant Man" (19:50) is a look at Merrick that was made in 2005, and discusses the differences between Merrick's life and the film, how the film influenced Jonathan Evans, the historian in the film, and includes some other trivia about Merrick. A 2006 interview with Lynch, conducted by Mike Figgis follows (19:51) that is a little stylistic and adapting a story to film is interesting. "Clapper Board" features a 1980 interview with Hurt (11:42) on the story, and on acting in general, while "Skintricks" is a 1988 piece with Hurt and makeup artist Christopher Tucker on the process for and inspiration behind the film. Three radio spots (1:23) and the trailer (2:42) go along with a 36-page booklet that includes reprinted historical material and conversations with Lynch.

Final Thoughts:

Criterion does right by The Elephant Man, serving up a wealth of extra material to go along with a fabulous technical presentation. If you have been waiting for this, wait no more, and if you have not seen The Elephant Man yet, Criterion has made sure you have no excuse anymore. A top-notch Blu-ray release.

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Highly Recommended

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