David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) portrays the true story of John Merrick (John Hurt), named as such due to his physical deformities which included malformed bones, sagging skin, and swollen growths over 90% of his body. In the film, Merrick is being displayed at a ‘freak show’, for all of 19th century London to see. Merrick is cruelly taunted and harrassed, until Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) seeks him out in order to study him at his hospital. Believed to be both intellectually as well as physically disabled, Merrick initially is treated as such. However, as the film progresses, Merrick is shown to be an intelligent and complex human being, in spite of his unsettling outward appearance.
The Elephant Man has many strengths. One of its main strengths is its cast. Anthony Hopkins portrays the frustration of a doctor who attempts to advocate for his client in such an authentic and passionate way. As Dr Treves fights for the rights of his client to stay in safety at the hospital, the viewer can really feel the desperation and need for him to find a safe place for someone who would not be entirely safe in general society at that time. Meanwhile, John Hurt is perfect as John Merrick. Although he has a huge prosthetic covering his head and face, he acts right through it. Not once did I think, “That’s a guy in a mask”. As much as Hopkins’ passionate pleas are authentic, so too is Hurt’s portrayal of the need to be treated as a human being rather than a circus attraction.
The film is shot entirely in black and white, which serves two functions. Firstly, it sets up the light and shadow of a film that has some incredibly sinister moments, but also ones that are more optimistic. In this way, its use of light and shadow has a huge influence on the emotional climate of a scene; which is much more apparent in a film without colour. Secondly, the black and white film gives the prosthetics applied to John Hurt’s face a more realistic appearance. I suspect that if the film were shot in colour, these prosthetics would look way less convincing. Because it’s shot in black and white, any potential flaws are much harder to spot. In this way, the colour choice is smart both in terms of aesthetics and mood, and the practicalities of dealing with difficult special effects.
The film score is also particularly excellent. It’s one of those scores where once you hear it, you’ll think, “That’s where that music comes from!”. The film’s main theme, composed by John Morris, is one such piece. It sounds like something that might be played at a circus; a circular tune that is repetitive and playful, yet vaguely threatening. The film also utilises the famous Adagio for Strings composed by Samuel Barber at the very end of the film, to great effect.
I have a not-so-secret big love for David Lynch. This film isn’t as ‘Lynchy’ as his others, but there are moments of his characteristic surrealism and quirkiness at both the beginning and end of the film. Additionally, his masterful use of black and white to create a lush visual environment, despite its lack of colour, reminds me of his very first feature film, Eraserhead (1977).
The Elephant Man is a film that had a profound effect on me. Despite seeing it numerous times, I am always caught up in the raw emotion of Merrick’s pleas toward the end of the film: “I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!”. The film explores human frailty, and the problem with judging other people by their outward appearance. It might even inspire a change in the way you perceive individuals who have a physical disability. John Merrick’s message is one that is still of particular relevance today: all humans have the right to be treated with dignity, regardless of their appearance. The Elephant Man illustrates this ideal in an incredibly touching and persuasive way.
Watch the trailer here.