- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Criterion celebrates the 40th anniversary of David Lynch’s haunting, black-and-white biographical drama with a Blu-ray release sporting a new restoration and packed with extras in The Elephant Man (Criterion, Rated PG, 2.35:1 aspect ratio, 123 minutes, $39.95).

The story, based mostly on real life with some creative liberties from the filmmakers takes viewers back to Victorian England and introduces John Merrick (the late John Hurt), a horribly deformed adult working as an attraction at a freakshow.

British surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) learns of the man’s plight and convinces an unscrupulous, sadistic ringmaster, and owner of Mr. Merrick, Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), to allow him to stay at the London Hospital.

His stay gets extended after talking with chairman/administrator Francis Carr Gomm (John Gielgud), and life for Mr. Merrick gets much easier as he is not only treated with compassion but becomes a fascination for London society with help from famous actress and now his motherly advocate Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft).

Hurt delivered arguably the best performance of his career, while hidden in heavily appliance makeup, and Hopkins stands toe-to-toe with him as well as a supporting cast led by Gielgud and the love-to-hate Mr. Jones.

Equally impressive is the moody and smothering cinematographer of Freddie Francis, brilliantly highlighted by the 4K restoration of the original camera negative (supervised by Mr. Lynch) and downscaled to high definition format for this presentation.

Specifically, lighting subtleties reigns supreme within the urban industrialized and often smoky locations that are interweaved with Mr. Lynch’s penchant for the avant-garde as he taps into the spirits of George Melies fantasies and the absurdity of Federico Fellini.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, and maddeningly the winner of none, “The Elephant Man” takes viewers on an emotionally draining ride where it’s impossible not to outright weep for the crushingly challenging existence of Merrick as he musters the courage to keep on living.

Best extras: Through lengthy archival interviews and featurettes spanning four decades, Criterion offers a near clinical deconstruction of the masterpiece worthy of any scholarly study.

I would start with a 30-minute look at the real Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, as explored by Jonathan Evans, archivist and curator of the Royal London Hospital Museum. The segment contradicts some of the movie’s narrative and delivers a welcomed historical perspective.

Next, a 21-minute production history offers a breezy overview of the film supplemented by interviews with the cast and creators such as producers Mel Brooks and Jonathan Sanger.

Now, interview segments abound, and the most informative was a 14-minute segment with make-up artist Christopher Tucker and Hurt being interviewed by Dutch TV show in 1988 and a 21-minute solo sit-down with Hurt from 2009. Hurt’s enthusiasm for the project pops from the screen in each, and the make-up segment offers plenty of detail on turning the actor into Merrick, a seven-hour process each day on the set.

Other interviews include 25 minutes with Mr. Lynch in 2009; 25 minutes with Mr. Sanger (filmed at British Film Institute Southbank) in 2018; 26 minutes with stills photographer Frank Connor; and a 51-minute audio recording of an American Film Institute seminar on the film featuring Mr. Lynch.

Equally interesting was a 70-minute snippet from the audiobook of Mr. Lynch’s memoir “Room to Dream,” read by co-author Krisine McKenna and the director, and of course relevant to the origins of “The Elephant Man.”

An included 38-page, black-and-white booklet adds more detail offering stills from the film; an interview from the 1990s with the director from writer Chris Rodley; and, perhaps best of all, an 1886 letter to the editor of the London Times about Joseph Merrick by Francis Culling Carr Gomm, chairman of the London Hospital. 

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