By Jacob Peet (Vermont)
This 1980 biopic is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, an English man who lived in the late 1800’s who was born with severe deformities that led to him being exhibited and deemed “The Elephant Man”. To tell Merrick’s story, David Lynch took the helm in what was his follow-up to 1977’s Eraserhead. Although Lynch’s second film is less obscure and more straightforward than its predecessor, it is no less compelling.
What really makes this film is John Hurt’s riveting performance as the doomed Merrick. Unrecognizable under excellent makeup and prosthetics, Hurt still shines through as a physically and psychologically damaged yet intriguing, intelligent, and gentle figure. His first major role after his famous part in the Ridley Scott sci-fi epic Alien, The Elephant Man may be Hurt’s career-defining role and one that put him in the conversation as one of our generation’s finest actors.
Anthony Hopkins is also great as Dr. Frederick Treves, a physician who takes Merrick under his wing after being exposed to him as part of a carnival sideshow act. Both actors go through sharp character archs, and their great on-screen chemistry together reveals how as Treves grew to care more and more about Merrick, Merrick began to open up to him.
While Eraserhead was a nightmare-inducing representation of male paranoia, Lynch shows that he has an eye for the sympathetic aspects of a story like The Elephant Man as well. Of course, a lot of credit must be given to Hurt as well. The combined efforts of those two men as well as the musical score and makeup team succeed in creating “a synthesis of compassion and restraint in treating its subject” (Rotten Tomatoes).