The film is based on the true story of John Merrick, also known during his time, the end of the 19th century, as the Elephant Man. Merrick suffered from a debilitating illness that created growths that covered his body, and left it mostly useless. His horrible deformations branded him as a freak and a monster, and he was used by his "owner" as a circus sideshow. However, through a turn of events, Merrick meets Dr. Frederick Treves, a physician from the London Royal Hospital. Treves interns him at the hospital, and as the Dr. realizes that Merrick is not only human, but intelligent and perceptive, their relationship deepens, and he strives to give the suffering man the dignified and human life he deserves. The story is beautiful, and it's very emotional - Lynch takes us into the very deepest depths of human misery, but conserves a core of decency throughout the film.
The acting is top of the line from everyone involved. Anthony Hopkins gives a beautiful performance as Frederick Treves, as does John Hurt in the title role. The supporting players are also excellent, with standouts including John Gielgud as the hospital manager, Anne Bancroft as an actress who befriends Merrick, and Freddie Jones in a chilling role as Merrick's "owner".
The film's drama also comes from David Lynch's unique treatment of the material. He treads a very fine line between realism and a sense of surreality, and never falters. Thus, he creates some of the most memorable scenes I've seen in modern film, namely the Romeo and Juliet scene, the night party, and the ending, it being one of the most devastating scenes you'll see on film. Also, Freddie Francis' black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, and gives London an industrial, opressive feel.
In the end, however, the film is carried by Lynch's masterful orchestration of the relationship between Merrick and Treves, and by the former's fight against society. Merrick is a meek, religious man, quite intelligent, and his bane is that he understands why society treats him as it does, making his ordeal even more painful. But throughout his ordeal, the he keeps his soul unsoiled, and when all things are considered, he is perhaps the most human of all.
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