The severity of John Merrick’s disfigurement is confrontational to our worst sense and the cold street life of poverty in Victorian England, where the film is set, distancing and aloof from his plight.
One feels quite separated from the film, much like the distance one may feel from Merrick, but that the better response is not repulsion, but compassion, so one can be inside the story of “The Elephant Man”.
The Elephant Man (1980) is about dignity. Dignity for those who are, through no fault of their own, impaired, but get ridiculed and oppressed.
Set in Victorian England, poverty drives some people to do anything to make a buck out of “different” people. Some poor people made money out of “Fat Ladies” and “Strong Men”. “The Elephant Man” was John Merrick’s stage name; Merrick was in a “freak show”.
A sensitive and compassionate doctor, played by Anthony Hopkins, changes his life, when the doctor convinces Merrick’s owner to hand him over on medical grounds.
Subsequently, the doctor gives Merrick a place to stay in a hospital where he is safe and looked after, but in a harrowing scene, Merrick does have to contend with the curious streetwise folk who know where to find and make fun of him.
Ironically, Merrick becomes something of a celebrity in the higher echelons of Victorian society, which may have been another form of taking advantage of him, in the guise of researching medical “oddities”.
Ultimately, the film’s compassion is its master stroke.
The film hauntingly underlines the severity of Merrick’s condition and how it affected his life and we may be moved by his predicament. As Merrick said, in response to ridicule by some in society, “I am not an animal. I am a human being!”
Finely made, as well.
It’s a little different for a David Lynch film, who is an unconventional film director, whose films can be somewhat cold and detached, such as Eraserhead and Mullholland Drive, but this is more of a conventional style of film.
The Elephant Man’s got a soul even though this black and white film is somewhat low-key at times–but there is a grand sense that we should care deeply about the subject.
4 1/2 out of 5 stars