Tag Archives: Victorian London

The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man posterAs I write this I seem to have begun a little David Lynch season for myself so there will no doubt be a few direct comparisons here to Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead, as I take a look at his second, a film that on paper couldn’t be much more different, the real life story of Joseph (here John) Merrick, aka The Elephant Man.

From the opening it felt a bit like we might be heading back into Eraserhead territory as we are greeted, following the titles, by a nightmarish monochrome montage with Merrick’s mother, an elephant and a noisy discordant soundtrack.

After this though it settles down, for the most part, into a more conventional period drama type piece charting Merrick’s (John Hurt) life from being seen in a ‘freak show’ by Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) to being taken into the London Hospital and what happens from there.

Of course the rightly most discussed aspect of The Elephant Man is John Hurt’s performance as Merrick. Almost completely subsumed in prosthetics that are, for the most part, entirely convincing, Hurt’s portrayal is masterful, eliciting real emotion through his eyes, movements and slurred voice in truly effecting manner.

In many ways it is this performance that anchors the connection to Lynch’s other early features as Hurt’s Merrick is, like Henry in Eraserhead, something of a wide-eyed innocent being bombarded by the world around him.

The Elephant Man - Hopkins and Hurt

John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins

Added to this his growth as a young man has slight links with Kyle MacLachlan’s performance as Paul Muad’Dib Atreides in Lynch’s adaptation of Dune.

The film is something of a double-header as Hurt is accompanied throughout the story by Hopkins as Treves and, while far more conventional a piece of acting, it is equally impressive as Hopkins is when he wants to be.

Stylistically Lynch makes some interesting choices throughout the film, as you might expect. The monochrome photography, ably executed by Freddie Francis, works excellently to add to the Victorian period feel and is clean and crisp in a way that shows real detail while allowing shadows to lurk where necessary and create an unsettling atmosphere, particularly in the first and third acts.

Added to this the tone of the film switches expertly throughout from moments of melodrama to serious cinema to almost Hammer Horror to nightmarish reminiscent of the industrial apocalypse of Eraserhead. Lynch manages these changes of aspect so they don’t clash but cause a great effect on the viewer in a way rarely seen in mainstream cinema.

The Elephant Man - David Lynch

David Lynch on set of The Elephant Man

Building to an entirely satisfying climax The Elephant Man concludes on a more sedate dream-like montage which I couldn’t help but notice bears a strong resemblance to the opening images of Lynch’s next film Dune, which set my mind spinning with ideas.

On top of all this it fires ideas in the mind of the viewer around the meaning of human dignity and human rights that, while they aren’t fully explored, are clearly intentional and, like much of Lynch’s work, give the film a life long after it has ended, certainly a hallmark of a great film in any situation.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

From Hell

From Hell coverAlan Moore’s writing has always been something apart from what was around him. Certainly his 1980s work for American comics giant DC has, and can be, included with that decades re-evaluation of the form, but even next to his contemporaries from that era his work has always seemed to stand apart.

So, from the voice finding 1984-like super-anti-hero series V For Vendetta, through his epic retelling of 20th century history with ‘real world’ superheroes in Watchmen (and more in between) we get to From Hell, his take on the Jack The Ripper story.

Much like his previous work, Moore doesn’t take the usual route with his tale of murder on the foggy streets of Whitechapel. Rather than the police procedural a story like this would often be (and to an extent is in the lackluster film adaptation), From Hell focuses as much on ‘Jack’ and the lives of his victims as it does Inspector Abberline of the Yard.

From Hell 1But, what really sets this entirely apart from what it could have been, is its speculative fiction approach. This mixes elements of historical fact with reasonably well supported conspiracy and the odd moment of outright invention to create something genuinely compelling in its basic plot, with a couple of extra layers of social commentary laid over the top.

The basic plot deals with one of the stronger theories of who the Ripper might have been, looking particularly at Sir William Withey Gull and the idea of a Royal and Masonic conspiracy to cover up the birth of an illegitimate royal baby.

This explains, fairly satisfactorily, why the five specific women were killed and, by Moore’s own admission in the book’s footnotes, explores a fairly biased conspiracy against Freemasonry – though coming from where I do I have to admit to finding this hugely compelling as well.

from hell 2On top of this we get flashes of Gull’s supposed madness. While this isn’t entirely based on fact there is evidence he suffered a stroke, which may have led to seizures and arguably ‘visions’. Moore runs with this idea to turn Jack The Ripper into the progenitor of the serial killer as we see it portrayed in both the real world and fiction today and give a twisted motive to his crimes.

This portrayal of the serial killer idea is a fairly obvious, but very well executed, comment on how the media has dealt with the subject since and references the likes of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and Ian Sutcliffe.

In the eyes of some this may be a controversial set of  direct references to make but, for me, it brings home the reality of the crimes portrayed in From Hell and acts as a reminder that, while this is a compelling mystery narrative set in the now-alien streets of Victorian London, these murders did rally take place and involved real people having a major effect not only on the life of those involved, but also the psyche of certainly the city and possibly the entire country.

From Hell 3While Moore’s writing is, rightly, the most focused on aspect of From Hell, that is to do artist Eddie Campbell something of a disservice. Without his scratchy black and white imagery the feel needed for this story would be lost.

The detailed line drawing style feels right for the setting of the story as it evokes a sense of mystery and gloom that working class areas of Victorian London had. Along side this, it gives a transcendental feel when the visions occur and, with more detailed backgrounds when we see into the lives of the upper class, helps show the social divide at work in the story. Chiefly striking in this is Queen Victoria who appears surrounded and shrouded in her mourning black throughout.

from hell 4If all you know of Alan Moore is his famous American work, or all you know of From Hell is the Hughes Brothers mildly diverting but flawed not-quite-whodunit movie, then I couldn’t recommend From Hell more as the vision of a singular artist, both in its writer and, as described here, in its main character.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,