I live a dangerous life, walking the line of feeling completely ambivalent to the work of director David Lynch. His aversion to consistent thematic tendencies or theories showcases a very barren style of directing. Weird visuals for the sake of it, without the depth necessary to catch such interesting flairs across the finish line. It doesn’t surprise me that Lynch can offer up a marvellous film while at the same time subverting this unique expressionism almost entirely. The fluctuating tones of his art sacrificed to bring us The Elephant Man, a haunting biopic about the life of Joseph Casey Merrick and the final years of his life.
John Hurt stars as the eponymous character, Merrick’s name mentioned so frequently throughout the movie but succumbing to the visual name given to Hurt’s near-perfect performance is no surprise. Lynch puts his eye for detail to good use here, replicating Merrick’s condition in excruciating detail. Hurt staggers, screams and snivels his way through a tremendous role opposite Anthony Hopkins, who portrays Dr Frederick Treves, the man tasked with recuperating Merrick’s near-death condition. Ulterior motives run rampant through the supporting cast of characters, all looking to take advantage of Merrick’s condition in one way or another.
The Elephant Man is keen to provide us with a variety of scenes that show the gruelling road to rehabilitation Merrick undertakes. His quality of life is mocked by many, and there are more than a handful of tragic scenes that showcase such a horror. Lynch’s camera placement is traditional for the most part, there are no truly mind-blowing shots, nothing within that could usurp the focus on the performances of the two leading characters. It’s with a heavy sigh of relief that I realise most of The Elephant Man’s brilliance comes from the chemistry between Hurt and Hopkins. The steady, disciplinary yet caring nature of Treves gels well with the cautious and defenceless Merrick. There are scenes which depict the frightful emotions that run wild between the two, making for intensely engaging viewing with relative ease.
All the pieces come together at just the right time. Two of my favourite actors provide some excellent dialogue sparring, Hurt and Hopkins bounce lines off of one another with such a fondness that it becomes feverishly engaging and charismatic. Adding this to the consistent direction of Lynch, who brings about his finest work to date within The Elephant Man, and you have the perfect mixture of competent direction paving the way for two truly devoted performers. It’s not often that a biopic these days can conjure up any tremendous emotion or thought, but The Elephant Man exceeds itself, in a near-masterpiece showcasing the needlessly brutal life of John Merrick.