In today’s culture, beauty is highly valued and often regarded as a yardstick for one’s worth, with failure to measure up to society’s standards inviting mockery and ostracism. Likewise, in “The Elephant Man”, the ugly are considered specimens of interest in Victorian circuses. The touching yet thought-provoking film explores society’s standard of beauty in late 1880s London, asking us if beauty is truly only skin deep. Does a monstrous grotesque exterior equate to a heartless beast? What truly makes a person “human”? Why is society unaccepting to the ugly?
From renowned director David Lynch, the iconic historical drama film is based on Frederick Treves’s 1923 book “The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences”. This tearjerking film revolves around John Merrick (John Hurt) whose rare disease results in a severely deformed body. The film follows Merrick as he transitions from a humiliated sideshow freak to a refined gentleman acknowledged by high society after being saved by surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins). He is offered to live at London Hospital where Treves discovers that unlike his appearance, Merrick is a kind-hearted and intelligent individual. Although he is no longer exhibited to paying crowds, he is subjected to the curiosity of other doctors.
The film greets audiences with an exceptionally haunting opening sequence. In a deserted circus ground, a herd of massive elephants storm towards a frightened young lady. Raising its trunk in mid-air, the elephant mercilessly strikes her petite body, sending her screaming in anguish. We don’t hear her piercing cries, only the booming trumpet of the elephants. This unique surrealistic cinematic moment by Lynch suggests that Merrick’s mother suffered both physical and psychological wounds while pregnant, contributing to Merrick’s elephant-like disfigurements. Accompanied with ominous carnival music and sudden cuts, this disturbing imagery was the perfect beginning to what audiences would expect from an auteur like David Lynch. Additionally, Despite having the technology to shoot in coloured film, Lynch and veteran cinematographer Freddie Franc opted to film in monochrome. This was extremely unusual during Hollywood’s colour era. Aside from the fact that black-and-white could cover-up the colours of the makeup deformities, Lynch wanted the story to have an overall dramatic effect. As Lynch states, “Black and White immediately takes you out of the real world”, something Lynch’s filmography is well-known for, taking us out of the realities of the world and putting us into a surrealistic land.
The film would also be a flop without the brilliant performance by actor behind The Elephant Man – the star of the show, John Hurt. Recognised as one of the finest and most versatile actors in Britain, Hurt effortlessly pulled off this complex character, revealing the pure heart behind the monster. Performing in disfiguring makeup that painstakingly took 7-8 hours to apply, Hurt initially found it challenging to perform. Nonetheless, he flawlessly portrayed the role, masterfully projecting humanity past the special effects makeup. Complete with the “deformities”, his anguished eyes, expressive body language and slurred voice was enough for audiences to believe he indeed was the real Elephant Man. Although he failed to win the Academy Award for his performance, he not walked away with a BAFTA for “Best Actor” but overwhelming praise for his versatility as an actor.
All in all, “The Elephant Man” is a dark and beautiful tale, leaving audiences with a sentimental attachment to the film. By the end, Merrick’s beautiful and artistic soul hidden behind his “mask” makes evident that he is just a simple man and not any kind of “animal” or “creature”. This truly is one of Lynch’s more personal and moving works and a masterpiece with a strong message not to be missed.