The Elephant Man is not about a man who looks like an elephant but about a man who was so heavily disfigured that he was presented as a sideshow attraction at the circus. He could not sleep like a normal person; instead, he had to remain seated and lie face down in his lap. It is, loosely, I assume, based on the life of a man named Joseph Merrick, who in the mid-to-late 1800s lived with this very disability. He did not live a long life, dying before his 30th birthday.
The movie depicts Merrick (now named John), who is played by John Hurt with a lot of prosthetics, as a sympathetic character. We meet him at the circus, mistreated by his “owner”—beaten, hungry, and laughed at by the crowds. He is a curiosity for a surgeon, Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins), who wants at first to examine and present Merrick to his colleagues. The irony of moving him from one exhibition to another is lost on Treves. But, eventually, he helps Merrick live more like a normal person—until the plot determines that would be dull and less savory elements are (re-)introduced.
Ultimately, the film wants to convey to us two things: (1) don’t judge a book by its cover and (2) we should admire someone who had to persevere through extraordinary circumstances. The former comes to us after we learn that Merrick was not a brainless degenerate. He might not have looked it, but he was a reader—enjoying the works of Shakespeare and the Bible. The latter is a large point of the movie. It’s inspirational that he kept on keeping on even though he was ugly and mistreated by many people.
To that end, he was very ugly. His face and upper body was very deformed—the movie makes a point of specifying that his lower half was fine. The prosthetics and makeup that make John Hurt look this man are fantastic. I can only imagine they took several hours each day to apply. The work was worth it. You wouldn’t know it was John Hurt underneath all of it, but you can still feel the humanity from his performance—that’s why you hire someone like Hurt and not a nobody. Even if you can’t tell it’s him, the performance will come through.
It deserves technical praise for its cinematography and makeup/costuming.
The director is David Lynch, who throws in some interesting imagery at the beginning but plays the tale relatively straight. He decided to film it in black and white, which is gorgeous. The lighting, especially is so fantastic. He teamed up with Freddie Francis, who won an Oscar two decades earlier, and the results are spectacular. For a subject that is so ugly—and not just because of Merrick, but because of the way he’s treated—it is a surprisingly pretty movie.
The Elephant Man is not particularly deep. Most of its characters are interesting only because of who they are in the story, or the circumstances under which they operate, and not because of who they really are. It would have been more interesting to focus primarily on the relationship between Merrick and Dr. Treves, or perhaps if it made Merrick a more engaging character to begin with. After we learn he’s not a stupid idiot, that’s the only “growth” there is to his character. Beyond, well, the disfigurement. Ha! That was a joke. A good joke. Shut up.
While The Elephant Man is a great movie, it isn’t a perfect one. It doesn’t have strong enough characters to carry it through a solid but ultimately pretty simple story. Still, it deserves technical praise for its cinematography and makeup/costuming, its actors are great—especially Hurt who, even underneath the prosthetics, makes us recognize the human being to his character—and it isn’t ever dull. It’s a great movie.
Conclusion: The Elephant Man is a great movie about a tragic man.
Recommendation: If the subject matter interests you, you should watch The Elephant Man.