Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Elephant Man

This is a sentimental film about a London Victorian surgeon (Frederick Treves, Anthony Hopkins) who learns of the existence of a disfigured person (John Merrick/Elephant Man, John Hurt) in a carnival freak show dubbed The Elephant Man. John’s character loosely based on Joseph Carey Merrick is a misfit of society, whose mother is thought to have been abused by elephants at birth. Frederick on visiting the freak show follows a policeman into the stall at which John is being exhibited. A police detective argues with the proprietor (Bytes, Freddie Jones) about the horrendous look of the Elephant Man, and ordering him to close the exhibition.  Frederick curious to see the Elephant Man bribes Bytes to see him after hours. Frederick is moved to tears after seeing John Merrick and pays handsomely for him to be documented by his medical fraternity.
“Frederick Treves (Hopkins), a surgeon at the London Hospital, removes Merrick from the dingy sideshow and treats his bronchitis. Although Treves initially thinks - hopes - Merrick is no more than an imbecile and exhibits him to his fellow doctors he is essentially a more humane keeper than Bytes (Jones).” Frederick is at first driven by curiosity by wishing to view the Elephant Man, but then he is moved to pity, and then to selfishness in his exploitation of John. This film should have been called the Victorian Surgeon And His Pet Elephant Man. The direction of this film focuses more on the surgeon than Elephant Man, John Merrick appears to prop up Frederick’s position in high-society. With only sympathy being given to John when he is abused by Bytes or others. To emphasise this so-called great duty that Frederick undertook, John receives only sympathy from him.
“It would take a heart of stone not be moved by ‘The Elephant Man’. Based upon the true story of the horrendously deformed John Merrick (Hurt), this tale of a pure soul struggling to be heard over the prejudice of the many is quite heart-rending.” The film was heart-rending, but not because of John’s so-called struggle to be heard, but because of the surgeon’s will to understand the different emotions he experiences and deals with them appropriately. When the matron points out her dislike for Frederick’s society friends visiting John, Frederick becomes defensive, nevertheless the matron drums home the idea that he is no better than Bytes, which brings him to question his true motives.  John Hurt’s physical performance of the Elephant Man is spot-on. His movement and mannerisms in that prosthetic suit is brilliant bringing to life a true vision of John Merrick. He was so subdued that no one could hear his voice, maybe because he had none.
The Elephant Man forces me to question this position on two grounds: first, on the meaning of Merrick's life, and second, on the ways in which the film employs it. It is conventional to say that Merrick, so hideously misformed that he was exhibited as a sideshow attraction, was courageous. No doubt he was. But there is a distinction here that needs to be drawn, between the courage of a man who chooses to face hardship for a good purpose, and the courage of a man who is simply doing the best he can, under the circumstances.” John Merrick was courageous in dealing with the social stigma that surrounded his deformity and the brutal treatment brought upon him by his captives. On the other hand his lack of courage to change is an issue; his submissive behaviour when being persecuted is disheartening and almost puppet-like, and warranted my anger more than this abuse. Frederick’s intervention in John’s life changes them both, with Frederick benefiting most out of the union as he learns to truly value the man he came to study. Merrick on the other hand becomes a respected gentleman, who he always was, hiding his true nature behind his disfigurement, and learns that society is willing to accept anyone if they know them better.
The Elephant Man is a good drama, a film worth seeing, if only to learn the value of constantly questioning ourselves and our motives, and never to accept the motives of others without first questioning them, whether they seem genuine or not.    

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