The Elephant Man (1980)

Director:  David Lynch
Cast:  Anthony HopkinsJohn HurtAnne Bancroft

Plot:  A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man who is mistreated while scraping a living as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous facade, there is revealed a person of intelligence and sensitivity.

Genre:  Biography / Drama
Awards:  Nom. for 8 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score

Runtime:  124min
Rating:  PG for some disturbing images. 

This is based on a true story about a horribly disfigured man whose mere sight would make ‘nervous people and women scream in terror’.  He is John Merrick (John Hurt), a nineteenth century Englishman afflicted with a disfiguring congenital disease.  

He is called the ‘Elephant Man’ whose life mirrors that of a slave. His owner is cruel, often beating him up and parading him in front of paying customers who do not mind paying a penny or two to have a glimpse at the ‘greatest freak of them all’.  Merrick is rescued by Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a well-intentioned local surgeon who shelters him in his hospital and attempts to help Merrick regain the dignity he lost after years spent as a sideshow freak.

The Elephant Man was nominated for eight Oscars in a strong cinematic year boasting Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, and Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.  Directed by one of America’s most twisted filmmakers whose career highlights include Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Dr. (2001), The Elephant Man is perfect material for David Lynch, who lands an Oscar nomination for Best Director here.

Filmed beautifully in black-and-white, Lynch cleverly uses shadows and smoke to give the picture a peculiar atmosphere and a rich assortment of impressionistic images.  There is a sequence when Merrick is thrown into a cage shared with aggressive monkeys and then escapes with the help of other freaks in captivity. 

This scene is one of Lynch’s best because it evokes a feeling of warmness in a cold, unsympathetic world.  Visually, it has elements of fantasy and gives a dream-like effect that would be aptly described as Lynchian.  Adding to the film’s overall strange quality, Lynch presents to us John Hurt in heavy makeup with a face so hideously deformed that it takes time for us to accept the way he looks.  Hurt’s performance is subtle yet powerful, perhaps only matched and bettered in that year by Robert De Niro of Raging Bull.

The most notable flaw is a technical one.  Lynch uses the fade-out transition technique one too many in the film; he does not give some scenes, especially one that is dramatic, enough time to linger on for several more important seconds to give viewers that emotional swell.  

The most significant part of The Elephant Man is a key scene of Merrick attending his first theater performance.  It is then dedicated to him and he receives a standing ovation with applause from the audience.  This is such a transcendent moment for Merrick (and a tearful one for viewers) who endured a lifetime of heartless jeers and disapproving stares.  Lynch’s film is shocking yet compassionate.  Although this is not his best work, it may very well be his most enduring. 


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