The Elephant Man, released in 1980 and directed by David Lynch, tells the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a man who is disfigured. He is rescued from a sideshow attraction and taken into a hospital by Dr.Frederick Treeves (Anthony Hopkins). Initially, Treves uses Merrick to help boost his name; he does not believe that Merrick has any intelligence or true humanity. Like everyone else, Treves judges Merrick based on his appearance. He learns his mistake after hearing him speak and listening to Merrick recite a Psalm. Merrick was a gentle and intelligent man who was exploited on multiple occasions by people in his life.
David Lynch’s direction in the film gives the film a unique look and feel. Shooting the film in black and white reminds me of classic monster movies from the 30s. Whether that was the intention, I do not know, but like Merrick’s appearance, the choice to shoot in black and white alters the audience’s perception and allows their expectations to be subverted. David Lynch also chose to use surreal sequences to show the backstory of Merrick’s mother. The dream-like sequences that start and end the film elevate the film from a standard biopic about Merrick’s life to something more.
David Lynch focuses heavily on mechanization and industrialization, something featured heavily in his previous film, Eraserhead, released in 1977. Like the machines, Merrick is manipulated and used. The people in his life prosper from him and treat him like a piece of equipment to assist with their success; that is what makes Merrick’s proclamation “I am not an animal! I am a human being” so poignant and powerful. Merrick is treated like a beast and used as a machine, but he is much more than that; he is an intelligent creature, capable of immense emotions. He loves and respects beauty and art.
The Elephant Man is a tragic story that is injected with hope. John Merrick is used and abused by people in his life, but through his experiences, at the hospital, he sees that love and kindness exist. David Lynch excellently directs the movie and the performances from John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins are incredible. The film is also technically remarkable with gorgeous black and white cinematography from Freddie Francis, a wonderful score from John Morris, and amazing make-up effects from Christopher Tucker and Wally Schneiderman. I have experienced many new films this past year, but this is the greatest one I viewed. A tragic story filled with heart and hope, The Elephant Man, excels at everything it attempts. It is truly a masterpiece.