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What's the story?
In THE ELEPHANT MAN, Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) makes a shocking discovery at a carnival side show: an "Elephant Man" (John Hurt) exhibiting a grotesque deformity over most of his body. Because he's sick and shows signs of abuse, he's brought to London Hospital, where he's studied and made a spectacle of all over again. Another shock comes when it becomes clear that Merrick isn't the imbecile they thought he was, but a compassionate and literate gentleman who's been playing dumb out of fear. Treves exposes him to culture, finery, things he's only dreamed of experiencing, yet a question gnaws at him. Is he exploiting his unfortunate friend for personal gain? Under his supervision, John Merrick, who suffers from "a disfigurement of the most extreme nature," is clothed, fed, shown a loving care he's never before known, but he's still on display, still a freak, and through him Treves has made a name for himself in the medical community and London society.
Is it any good?
This dark and beautiful 1980 movie is based on The Elephant Man and Other Reminisces by the real-life Treves, as well as Ashley Montagu's The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity. Director and co-writer David Lynch doesn't explain the characters' actions, which makes them good topics of discussion for teenagers mature enough to tackle the subject matter.
Lynch doesn't sentimentalize, either, or tone down his trademark haunting imagery (the design for John Hurt's makeup came from casts of the real John Merrick). He gives us Victorian England in all of its squalor, but he also gives us his most deeply affecting work in starkly beautiful black and white. Standouts in a phenomenal cast are stars Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, and Kenny Baker, the dwarf who, upon leading Merrick toward freedom, says, "Luck, my friend. Luck. And who needs it more than we?"
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about whether the doctor who rescues the Elephant Man from a circus, only to put him on a different sort of display is a "good man," or a "bad man," as he himself wonders aloud. They might also discuss how society's treatment of the disabled has changed and how it has remained the same since the times of the Elephant Man.
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