Bottom Line: “Beautiful” doesn’t even begin to describe this glorious work of art.
Directed by: David Lynch
Starring: Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins, Freddie Jones, Hannah Gordon, Helen Ryan, John Gielgud, John Hurt, Michael Elphick, Phoebe Nicholls, Wendy Hiller
Charlie Chaplin. Yasujiro Ozu. Quentin Tarantino. John Wayne. There’s a pattern in that list: not only are those the names of four of the most crucial icons to the world of cinema, they are also figures whose work I still–believe it or don’t–have not watched. Renowned surrealist filmmaker David Lynch was a member of that list, up until my eyes were met with The Elephant Man. The film is, in the simplest of terms, by far the most vivid emotional expression I have ever witnessed, flourishing with poignancy from the very start. It’s the kind of film where no matter how much your heartstrings are torn at, no matter how long your forefinger remains on the “stop” button, no matter how forlorn you begin to feel while watching, your undivided attention is held for an entire two hours.
The Elephant Man is a film of insurmountable passion. In its art, it sings out to the classic age of film-noir. We’re talking early 1940s through late 1950s here; this film was released in 1980–the pure difficulty we have trying to believe it. Grandiloquent black and white cinematography is just the start, and John Morris’s atmospheric musical compositions are merely a step up. In its story, the film takes a route that feels more like a consistent heartache, adapting two separate nonfiction texts, which were in turn based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (his name is changed to John in the film’s dramatization). In Victorian era London, Merrick (portrayed by John Hurt) has been dubbed “the Elephant Man”, a bit of a sick joke regarding how severely deformed he is. He is therefore subjected to public harassment in a freak show, before being discovered by surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins). We plead for his situation to rise a simple notch up from where it is currently. The characters treat Merrick so inhumanely and blasphemously that his story, though very difficult to connect with, becomes an easy one to commiserate with. It only grows more painful from there, when his entire existence becomes a vile, repulsive gag.
It’s extremely difficult to assess The Elephant Man beyond its strictly harrowing and thoughtfully afflicting value. If writer-director David Lynch crafted this masterpiece for other reasons than to show how disgusting humanity can be–especially without realizing it–then I will refrain from trying to search for other rationales. We look at the perfectly written, meticulously paced writing, and from there, it only leads to countless other great achievements: brilliant, careful editing; an ongoing tour de force involving just about every last player; the spiritually dampening conclusion, set against Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”; and a catharsis that is so deeply doused in our thoughts, it guarantees its own testament inside the human heart. Let’s not forget the famous “I am not an animal” scene, in which the picture is brought to a stunning climax. This isn’t a feel-good film, nor is it a film that will endure several willing viewings. Let’s say that with its ability to leave an audience both verbally and emotionally speechless, it should act as required viewing.