The Elephant Man starts off with a short sequence that reminded me a lot of Eraserhead, and indeed I began to question why in the world Hollywood would put David Lynch in charge of this film. Then, a much more normal film appeared, and I was much more able to sit through the whole thing. When it was over, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Wow. David Lynch is one hell of a humanist.” To say that The Elephant Man is Lynch’s most accessible film would be to make mention of just how orange an orange is. But this is much more than that. This is a pure study of what it really means to be a human being, and what forms true beauty and kindness can take in a world such as ours.
The Elephant Man is a fictional account of the life of a real man who lived in the late 19th century. John Merrick has lived his entire life as a man severely deformed, so much so that he makes an inauspicious living as an attraction in a travelling freak show, managed by a man named Bytes. It is in London one evening that he is discovered by a London surgeon, Frederick Treves, who also uncovers Bytes brutal treatment of Merrick, and thus takes him in to the London Hospital. Upon finding Merrick is not only lucid, but articulate, he begins campaigning for Merrick to live a normal life in the care of the hospital, and grows very fond of Merrick as well. As I mentioned in the opener, the film starts off with a rather opaque sequence that is either a dream or a hallucination, which might turn away some of the more reserved and hesitant viewers, but trust me; the film itself is about as straightforward as they come, and it works to amazing effect. Most of this is thanks to John Hurt, who manages to exude a sensitivity and kindness from John Merrick even beneath the pounds of makeup and prosthetics that transformed him into the Elephant Man, and indeed, his Oscar nomination for Best Actor was rightly deserved and well earned. The rest of the cast is ultimately successful, if not overly notable, with the exception of Anthony Hopkins, who is arguably the real star of the film, and it was a little eerie seeing him looking so young and with a full head of hair. But the real star of the film is unquestionably Lynch and his direction. The film is a black and white period piece, with an at-times lovely and haunting musical score and a modest sense of production value, that all combined makes for an incredibly striking picture, and one that will pretty easily stick with you for a good while after the film is over.
For a David Lynch film, this was incredibly and surprisingly human, and sensitive, and I appreciated the hell out of it. Lynch would ultimately go the other route, his original route, in his later career, but here, he still does show that he is capable of handling a real and heavy and emotional subject matter with aplomb and a deft hand. As I’ve said in past reviews, there’s a lot to like about The Elephant Man, and not very much to dislike. Really, in all honesty, I couldn’t come up with anything to truly dislike about the film; anything I could come up with was, in my opinion, really a strength of the film in disguise. This would be a good film to measure how well receivable and open your cinema friends’ taste in films would be; a litmus test to see if they would be all right in delving a little deeper into cinematic classics, of which this is certainly one. Give it a shot, and see if you’d pass this little experiment yourself.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10