Film review: a silent Hunchback of Notre Dame

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The bells! The bells!

One dark February night a couple of weeks ago, I joined a 200-strong audience in a bone-chilling Ely Cathedral to watch the silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’, Lon Chaney. I have seen quite a few brilliant silent films but this one was staged in an unusual and atmospheric setting that transcended the hammy acting and plodding production that pervades this early blockbuster. A silent film show in an English cathedral is a rare event; all credit to Ely Cathedral staff and Ely Film Society for devising such an innovative meeting of space and celluloid. It was a magical experience.
The film was screened in the centre of the cathedral beneath the warmly glowing gold Octagon way above our heads. As the surrounding darkness deepened and the temperature dropped, it was no effort to imagine Quasimodo scurrying along the stone paths that ran two metres away from our seats. Were we watching a story set in Paris or in Ely? Cathedral organist Jonathan Lilley played his own score on the venerable instrument, produced from a few viewings of the film and his own innate musicality. I was captivated by the nuances he coaxed from the pipes – in some scenes the sound was so gentle we were hardly aware if it, but in other scenes he made music so thunderous that the ancient foundations seemed to shudder.
Set in 15th century Paris, the plot centres on Quasimodo, the bell-ringer at Notre Dame, who is reviled for his appearance, and Esmeralda, the adopted daughter of the ‘king of the gypsies’. Her beauty attracts rival marriage bids but she loves the dashing Captain Phoebus. Esmeralda tends Quasimodo’s wounds after he receives a public whipping and earns his undying loyalty. Later, when she is wrongly condemned to death for a knife attack on Phoebus, Quasimodo rescues her from the gallows.

Lon Chaney, the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ infuses his Hunchback with humanity as well as cunning, frustration and even love.

HND is a ragbag of styles – medieval with a hint of the French Revolution! The costumes are an indulgent box of confection – lots of wimples and wide sleeves with a 1920s vampish twist, plus plenty of fully armoured knights charging about on horseback. Chaney makes a touching hunchback: he’s the master of ‘freak’ roles but he infuses this ‘monster’ with deep humanity and emotion, often with the most subtle change of facial expression. Some plot elements would ravage a 2013 equalities and diversity checklist – the stereotypical portrayals of Romany people, of disability, of women; even so it was easy to enjoy the film and learn something about the world it represents, a world that Hollywood loved (and loves still) to manipulate.
Universal’s ‘Super Jewel’ of 1923 grossed a massive $3m at the box office and was their most successful film of the silent era. The DVD we watched was compiled from existing prints – no negative survives, consequently the quality isn’t great. Nevertheless this wonderfully atmospheric evening was a triumph of vision, organisation and entertainment and I really want to do it again!
The text is a revision of my review first published on TAKE ONE http://ow.ly/iT3jM
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