Picks and Pans Review: The Elephant Man

updated 10/13/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1980 01:00AM

There are two things this vivid, mesmerizing film is not. Although Mel Brooks' company is the producer, it is not a comedy. It is also not taken from the award-winning Broadway play, which was primarily fiction. The movie claims to be the true, if dramatized, account (from several historical sources) of John Merrick, hideously deformed at birth and resigned to life as a circus freak until rescued by a London surgeon. As Merrick, John (Midnight Express) Hurt is disguised with latex. At first, the effect is horrific. But before long Hurt exposes the tortured man beneath. It is an unforgettable performance in a film full of marvelous actors: Anthony Hopkins as the surgeon, Wendy Hiller as a sympathetic nurse, John Gielgud as a hospital official and Freddie Jones as Merrick's creepy sideshow keeper. Only Anne Bancroft is subpar in the underwritten part of an actress who introduces Merrick to Victorian society. Director David Lynch, 33, whose only previous credit is the cult film Eraserhead, overdoes the horror. But aided by Freddie Francis' evocative black-and-white photography, Lynch captures the dark underside of a society that exploits its freaks. Despite the excess, this is a uniquely memorable film. (PG)

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