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A more pitiful existence than that lived by John Merrick, the Elephant Man, could not be imagined. Born with a deteriorating disease that infected his body with gruesome deformities, he was treated by Victorian England first as a freak show amusement and then as a society oddity. His story is currently the basis for a first rate complex play about conflicting motivations, and this rather simple-minded black-and-white (in more ways than one) movie.
If ever a movie begged to be loved, this is it; it's so shamelessly manipulative, we feel guilty for rejecting it, but The Elephant Man is so simplistic and disjointed, we're left with no other choice.
There are many historical discrepancies: Merrick's freak show owner was not an immoral lout who abused his charge; Frederick Treves, the doctor who recorded Merrick's case, was not saintly; and the other freaks did not free Merrick from the sideshow. These deviations from fact would not be particularly important if the movie did not wear its supposed authenticity like a shield, daring people to criticize its intent.
However, what truly keeps The Elephant Man impoverished is its refusal to create flesh and blood characters. People are either saints or devils, no one has a duplicitious thought or action. As Victorian England was one of the most "layered" of all societies, this simply renders the story banal.
It's a shame too, because the cast assembled for this film is quite remarkable. Anthony Hopkins is more than capable of showing a complex man at work. Dr. Treves, it shouldn't be forgotten, made his name in English society thanks to his "discovery" of the Elephant Man. Why is he never given a moment of self-congratulation? As for John Hurt's performance, it is shrouded by the sheer physicality of the role. Inexplicably, he is a totally sweet, naive man right from the moment he is rescued from a life of degradation. Where are the anger, the mistrust and hostility?
The film also leaves many questions unnecessarily unanswered. How did Merrick learn to read? What happened to Merrick's mother? Why is his spine deformed? The answers (not given in the movie): he was taught to read in the workhouse where his mother sent him, age 3, because she couldn't stand the sight of him. His back was crippled in a workhouse accident. Are these answers so difficult in a film purportedly telling us the truth about The Elephant Man?
Ultimately, The Elephant Man is a cheat. It demands emotional intensity from the audience, but offers very little of its own.
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