David Lynch couldn't have been the first choice - or the first you'd expect - to adapt material such as the kind present in "The Elephant Man" to the big screen. A man of dream-like spectacle and insane surrealism, Lynch clearly isn't one for sentiment. Of course, he is observant of humanity in a good deal of his films, as long as we allow ourselves to look that deeply into him, but this is something relatively different for him; but it's not without his usual stylistic traits, such as dream sequences and strange, outlandish, but complex make-up effects that only add to the visual experience.
And of course it's in black-and-white. This visual stylistic choice works for the film, as it is told with great dramatic force, performed with gritty indulgence, and directed with unending flare. It may feel like Oscar bait, but it's the "Lynchian" touch of imaginative mayhem that makes it different from most films that fit the definition - and I'm not sure there is one.
John Merrick (John Hurt, with a crap-load of make-up on); a fragile, deformed-since-birth being who performs as a circus freak. His master is frequently cruel, and mistreats him at every opportunity he gets. It seems like nothing can rescue him from his troubled existence, but we would be wrong. "Freaks" often get both wanted and - most certainly - unwanted attention from those of "normality". Most see John as, indeed, a freak of nature. We see women cowering from the exhibit in which he is forced to exploit his disfigurements. However, sometimes, there's a man. Sometimes, there's a man...
In this case, that man is Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a surgeon who discovers Merrick whilst walking the streets of London when he comes across the freak's master. Almost instantly after setting sights upon the "abomination", he decides to study and examine the "creature". Merrick does not object to this, as it's clear that while he's afraid of what most people might make of him (and this is why he covers his face whenever outside of his "natural habitat", that being the layer of his master), he is also open-minded. This is why he finds a friend in Treves after he takes him to a hospital and cares for him. Not only that, Treves also provides Merrick with proper education; a lot of which he might have already had, but just didn't know it.
There are a few others, such as the Governor of the hospital in which Merrick stays (played by John Gielgud), who accept him for whom he is instead of screaming on sight. I'm sure Merrick appreciates such positive treatment, as negativity is always around the corner, but so long as he's in the hospital, trouble will have to wait. Or at least that's what we think.
Popular culture probably ruined one of the film's most memorable scenes for us all. That scene which I am referring to is the one where an angry mob chases and corners Merrick, only to provoke him into yelling a famous, quotable line: "I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am...a...man!"
And what a great scene that is. I think it says a lot about how unaccepting our society is of those born with deformities. People don't attempt to understand Merrick most of the time; in fact, quite a few of London's nastier inhabitants would rather humiliate the sad being before seeing the world through his eyes. However, those who do enjoy Merrick's company are delightful, well-thought-out characters. They may be why some people will like this movie; while at the same time, they may be a source to why some will not.
The film is very human, and all-together very moving. I found it entertaining, visually impressive, and David Lynch manages to bring plenty of unique stylistic elements to the table. The frightening and traumatic dream sequences of Merrick, and the little bits of surrealism scattered throughout each brilliant frame, only add to the film's appeal. I personally thought it was wonderful, and I recommend it to most of my readers. There are some who might not accept it for what it was, for it's the kind of movie that you either love or you don't. Everyone should see it nonetheless, because in the end, we fail to regret watching movies that entertained us to some degree. And if "The Elephant Man" doesn't entertain you at least somewhat, then I have to ask: who's the freak now?
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About the reviewer
Ryan J. Marshall (ryguy4738)
It's very likely that the only kind of reviews I'll ever post here are movie reviews. I'm very passionate about film; and at this point, it pretty much controls my life. Film gives us a purpose; … more
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The screenplay was adapted by Lynch, Christopher De Vore, and Eric Bergren from the books The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923) by Sir Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu. It was shot in black-and-white.
The Elephant Man was recognized as a critical and commercial success, and received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture in 1981.