Bradley Cooper’s performance in The Elephant Man is an impressive feat of physical acting that’s a little too good for a largely uninspired play.
In one of the few genuinely innovative scenes, we first see Cooper as a near-naked, barrel-chested vision of human perfection. As Joseph Merrick’s many deformities are read aloud, Cooper contorts his body – a drooping mouth, a claw-like fist, a withered leg – to become the titular Elephant Man; no prosthetics are involved.
Merrick is “rescued” from the carnival by the talented young physician Dr Treves, who immediately plonks him into the carnival of Victorian high society. The rich and famous – even royalty – flock to “befriend” the man-monster. But are they any better than the circus-master? Are they? Are they? Are they? The question is posed again and again (spoiler alert: the answer is no), to the expense of any real insight into Merrick’s psyche.
Alessandro Nivola puts in a decent shift as Treves, a man torn between ambition and conscience, but the rest of the cast is given little to work with. The usually-excellent Patricia Clarkson is a case in point: her Mrs Kendal, an actress who becomes Merrick’s closest confidante, lacks the fire the role demands and often appears lost.
The supporting players are largely Englishmen as imagined by Americans, with cheeky cockney geezers and gents with stiff upper lips. It’s not accurate enough to be a history play, emotionally complex enough to be a drama or funny enough to be a comedy, which leaves a large weight on Cooper’s hunched shoulders. For the most part he carries it well, but not quite well enough to rescue an otherwise damp squib of a play.
First published in City A.M.