The Elephant Man Is the Pick of the Week

Cinema Sentries

Obviously, the great David Lynch is isn’t exactly known for depicting humanity and subtlety, even in some of his greatest films (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr., etc), but when he actually does, he does do it well. This is the case with his strange and savagely humanistic 1980 biopic The Elephant Man, which touches upon themes that he wouldn’t explore again until The Straight Story (1999).

Based on a true story, the film centers on John Merrick, a deformed Briton who was discovered at a circus as the sideshow attraction by a compassionate doctor, Frederick Treves, during the 19th century. Despite his physical disfigurements, he was revealed to be a highly intelligent and benevolent individual, one who wanted to escape the hellish labels such as “an animal” and a “freak” that was placed on him. He eventually became a beloved member of society who relished in the arts and lived his life to the fullest until his death in 1890.

Shot by legendary cinematographer Freddie Francis, the film creates a dreamlike portrait of acceptance during a time of great pain. It also contains a heartbreaking and iconic performance by the late, great John Hurt, and equally unforgettable roles for Sir Anthony Hopkins as Treves, and Freddie Jones as Mr. Bytes (the evil ringmaster of the circus), as well as Anne Bancroft, Dame Wendy Hiller, Hannah Gordon, and Sir John Gieglud.

This may not be one of Lynch’s most popular films, but it is one of great depth, emotion, and incredible vitality. It’s also a testament to Lynch’s unique gifts and versatility as a filmmaker. The folks at Criterion definitely understood the film’s brilliance by providing a new 4K restoration and amazing supplements such as Lynch and critic Kristine McKenna reading from Room to Dream, a 2018 book they coauthored; archival interviews with Lynch, actor John Hurt, producers Mel Brooks and Jonathan Sanger, director of photography Freddie Francis, stills photographer Frank Connor, and makeup artist Christopher Tucker; 1981 audio interview/Q&A with Lynch at the American Film Institute; The Terrible Elephant Man Revealed, a documentary about the film from 2001; Joseph Merrick: The Real Elephant Man, a program featuring archivist Jonathan Evans from 2005; and trailer/radio spots. The digipak also includes a new booklet with excerpts from an interview with Lynch from the 2005 edition of filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley’s book Lynch on Lynch, and an 1886 letter to the editor of the London Times concerning Merrick, by Francis Culling Carr Gomm, chairman of the London Hospital that Merrick was living in at the time of his death.

Of course, I 100% recommend this classic film! It should definitely make a great addition to anyone’s collection and perhaps make it on a top-ten list of best Blu-ray releases of the year.

Other releases:

Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, Volume 3 (Criterion): A new box set featuring more undiscovered and over-looked gems of world cinema history restored by Scorsese’s Film Foundation. Includes Pixote, Lucía, After the Curfew, Downpour, Soleil Ô, and Dos monjes.

Variety (Kino): A provocative and unsettling work from filmmaker Bette Gordon about a woman who becomes obsessed with sexuality and pornography after getting a job as a ticket seller for a porn theater in New York. Read my review.

Momma’s Man (Kino): A quiet and honest independent film about a man who has a change of heart towards his life a husband and father after an imposed stay at his parents’ Manhattan loft.

Alphabet City: A 1984 crime drama about a New York City drug dealer who decides to get out the business, but finds that easier said than done when he’s fleeing from mobsters.

Love Me Tonight (Kino): A charming and hilarious musical starring Maurice Chevailer as a French tailor who travels to a castle to collect payment on long overdue bills. He falls in love with a princess, and this causes him to deal with a series of funny mishaps in order to not risk being found out and losing her in the process.


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