Written by: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller
Differences outside of the norm create the breeding ground for ridicule, especially from the most cold-hearted. It can be as minuscule as personality or as outward as a physical deformity as seen in The Elephant Man. A story about the importance of human compassion, no matter what the person looks like. As sincere and endearing as a story can get, this warms the heart while also peeling back a layer to show humanity at its meanest.
Born with life-threatening physical deformities, John Merrick (John Hurt) gets used as a freak for a circus before he’s tended to in a hospital by Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins). He then gets taken in and receives a level of compassion he never had in his life from others, which includes showing to the entire world he should not be defined by the way he looks.
As children, we get taught not to make fun of others for the way they look and with this lesson, you would think people would be above the actions taken in this film, but that would be naive thinking. In actuality, humans love to belittle anything they see as beneath them and in the case of this film, would even pay to watch and laugh at it. This idea runs all through The Elephant Man, which could set up a miserable viewing experience of seeing a poor man bullied because of the way he looks on the outside. However, this film coincidentally is also one of the sweetest and most endearing stories I’ve ever seen. These two competing forces feed off of each other in order to add to the emotional struggle the story wants you to feel and it comes together very well.
Introduced to the audience as part of a freak show, Merrick has different growths on his face that not only give him physical malformations but also make it difficult for him to breathe and sleep properly. With no support whatsoever, the film wonderfully displays that the physical appearance and issues he faces do not factor into his mental aptitude. Throughout the film, he proves his capabilities of speech, even with the added labor it takes him because of the disfigurements. An act of kindness is all it takes, which Merrick receives from Treves, as they form a beautiful friendship based on human compassion and decency. The rest of the story plays out in people meeting him and learning he’s more than what the physical appearance shows. There are still those shallow people who forever see him as a freak, but the world does have good people inhabiting it.
The sincerity of this film essentially became its biggest surprise. I could not fathom this story’s wholeheartedness would carry throughout, especially considering David Lynch helmed this feature as the director. Coming fresh off his surreal feature film debut Eraserhead, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop in this story. Lynch, as a director, rarely makes straightforward stories, and if anything, he has proven to relish in making uncomfortable, upsetting, and unclear narratives. To my surprise, nothing of the sort occurs in this film, which could potentially be a spoiler I suppose. Even with this being an atypical Lynchian adventure, he still manages to shoot this in an engaging manner with some striking visuals on display. He manages the tone of this story very well for when it shifts from the heartwarming moments to those meant to incite anger.
With crafting the physical appearance of Merrick, the make-up department obviously deserves credit seeing as they use all of these prosthetics on John Hurt to transform him. The look not only emphasizes the difference in the way he looks, but also the difficulty he has with doing the basic things in life like breathing. Iconic in its own right, the prosthetics definitively play an important role and it combines well with John Hurt’s tear-jerking performance as Merrick. Hurt’s incredible voice breaks through to bring the beautiful humanity Merrick’s character brings to the story. If anything Merrick displays the heights of humanity more than anyone else. When Merrick reaches some semblance of prominence never does he take a moment to lash out at anyone below him because it’s not in his nature. Hurt does so well with the childlike naivete this role calls for, as even if Merrick has aged like a man, he has not had many interactions with people who view him as an equal.
With enough sincerity to power a city, The Elephant Man delves into an individual’s basic humanity and common courtesy he deserves no matter how he looks. You would hope this story would no longer be relevant, but history has proven time after time that there will always be people willing to belittle others they see as inferior to them. This film has a great line with a tremendous delivery from Hurt outlining this pain and lack of human decency out there, which really gets at the heart of this message. Beautifully effective and one everyone should watch.