(Review originally written at 11 February 2006)

"The Elephant Man" is certainly an above average biographic movie about Joseph "John" Merrick, better known as the elephant man. The movie takes lots of liberties and of course over-dramatizes at times. I never have anything against altering a true story, as long as the movie and its storytelling benefits from it. In this case however, the truth was better than the fiction of this movie.

As a movie it is well constructed and it's atmospheric. The black & white cinematography makes this movie feel like a 'horror-monster' movie from the '30's and early '40's, like for instance "Frankenstein". Through its style it makes us realize and aware of it, that we look same upon John Merrick, as we do on the Frankenstein creature. We're disgust and frightened. At first sight we don't bother and fail to really see the wonderful personality and qualities of the person. In a way it makes us more monsters than Joseph Merrick ever was.

It's especially the cinematography and way of storytelling that contributes to the movie its style and quality. Director of photography Freddie Francis is a well known name in the horror business so his style and experience is notable and adds to the good of the atmosphere. If you really didn't knew any better you would really think that the movie was made in the '30's or '40's of the last century. Also the sets and costumes and of course make-up, add to the 'feeling' of the movie.

But now the negative aspects of the movie. Main problem for me was that I didn't really got emotionally involved with the movie and its characters. The explanation for this is however simple I think. I personally was already quite familiar with the true story of Joseph Merrick, his life and his condition. So nothing in the movie came as a real surprise to me and I already knew how it would end and most of what happened in between. Still I felt that the character lacked real depth and were perhaps even a bit underdeveloped. For instance we never really get to fully understand what drove Dr. Frederick Treves, or what went on in John Merrick's head (especially in the beginning of the movie.).

The movie truly could had been a more powerful one if it had sticked more closely to the truth. For instance the interesting aspect of Merrick being a suspect in the Jack the Ripper case was left entirely out of the movie. If they had put it in the movie it would had been more and better shown how the general public, in that time period, thought and felt about Merrick. It really is a movie filled with some missed opportunities and that is the reason for me why I regard this movie not as a perfect or emotional one. But I'm convinced of it that persons without too much knowledge about the story and appearance of Merrick will find this movie a satisfying and emotional moving one. In that case I would advice you to just ignore this comment and simply go and watch this movie for yourself, because it almost most certainly will be worth your time.

It's a good looking, well acted and nicely constructed movie but honestly, if you want to learn about Joseph Merrick's life and condition I still recommend you watch a good documentary about him instead.


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About Frank Veenstra

Watches movies...writes about them...and that's it for now.
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