Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 23, 2020)
One of 1980’s Oscar Best Picture nominees, The Elephant Man comes based on a true story. Set circa the late 19th century, the film introduces us to Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a London surgeon.
Dr. Treves scours a carnival freak show in search of subjects he can research. Along the way, he finds an attraction known as “The Elephant Man”, one that focuses on a radically deformed young man named John Merrick (John Hurt).
Though Dr. Treves’ initial interest stems from his work, he soon discovers the real human beneath Merrick’s disfigured exterior. Treves works to redeem Merrick and allow him to prosper in society.
Going into Elephant Man, director David Lynch enjoyed one feature film credit: 1977’s odd and surreal Eraserhead. Given that background, it seemed natural to expect Lynch to play Elephant for freakish horror.
Happily, Lynch reins in his traditional tendencies and makes Elephant an almost shockingly restrained effort. Whereas the Lynch of Eraserhead would feel likely to explore the grotesque, here he focuses wholly on the humanity.
Of the title character, that is. Elephant comes with horrifying behavior, but it all stems from the actions of so-called “normal people”, the ones who continually treat Merrick like a sub-human.
This theme seems obvious to the point of triteness but Lynch ensures that Elephant doesn’t feel preachy or condescending. The film gets to the heart of the subject matter with a sense of insight.
To a degree, that is, as I think the film lets off the “upper crust” too easily. While Elephant vaguely condemns the patronizing manner in which they attempt to use Merrick in a 19th century form of “woke” behavior, the movie seems disinterested in that domain.
Instead, Elephant focuses more on a brutal depiction of the lower classes. They come across as mainly horrible and feel like villagers from Frankenstein.
This seems intentional, as Elephant can often reflect the 1931 James Whale classic. Lynch uses cinematic techniques that echo Frankestein, and Merritt gets treated as the misunderstood “monster”.
Of course, Frankenstein focuses on a creature only semi-human, whereas Elephant brings a real person, one who simply looks monstrous. As the film’s most famous quote reminds us, Merrick is not an animal – he’s a human being, and the movie makes that humanity a strong element.
While Lynch’s tasteful, subdued direction does a lot to create the film’s impact, Hurt’s performance becomes the most important factor. Buried under an intense amount of prosthetics and makeup, Hurt still manages to create a remarkable amount of emotion.
With all those appliances, Hurt easily could’ve gotten lost. However, he evokes real feeling as Merrick and allows the role to become much more engaging than could’ve been the case.
It also helps that Lynch largely avoids potentially preachy tendencies. Elephant reminds us what the smallest moments of kindness can mean to someone in need, and it gently encourages to be better people.
Arguably the best movie David Lynch ever made, The Elephant Man endures as a humane classic. Deep, rich and heartbreaking, the film cuts to the core.