Rates: * * * * 1/2
Why Did I Watch It? Have not seen it since I was a teenager and it seemed like the time.
On the dark back streets of Victorian London, something strange lurks in the shadows of the gas lamps. John Merrick: a man with a rare genetic condition that has rendered him a societal outcast, his sweet soul hidden under monstrous deformity. But a determined young doctor is about to adopt him, and show by example that everyone should be treated with respect.
David Lynch’s melodrama is one of his most straightforward films (its only real competitor in his filmography is ‘The Straight Story’), but its hard to think of this in another director’s hands. The inky black and white cinematography, by Freddie Francis, perfectly frames this story of a near modern day freak, who Lynch clearly identifies with. Just like the better character’s in the story help humanise this man, so the film does the same job; you clickly learn to look past Merrick’s physicality, and focus on his personality.
The late John Hurt delivers a tremondously effecting performance, doubly impressive when you consider the size and nature of the make up he is acting under. He was unlucky to run into Robert De Niro and ‘Raging Bull’ at the Oscars, and I would argue this performance has left a much larger cultural imprint (outside of the cineast sphere). His famous lines towards the end of the movie – ‘I am not an animal! I am a human being. I am a man.’ – still carry an enormous amount of charge, and viewed in the present day, also come with a subtext of commentary on contemporary identity issues. His reaction to receiving his own grooming kit is…. really something.
As Dr Treves, Anthony Hopkins is terrific, in an understated performance that marked him as future star. The two actors have great chemistry, and share a number of wonderful scenes.
The production design and costumes are perfectly realised, and hark back to classic German expressionist cinema, while having their own unique flavour. The whole film has this tone, both vintage and modern. While Lynch’s direction is classically simple, it is not entirely without his trademark flourishes; witness the nightmarish opening sequence, seemingly depicting the title character’s conception, and its cosmic finale, whose meaning could be anything. My read was: we will all meet again in some timeless, boundaryless place.
Trivial footnote: Dexter Fletcher, star of ‘Lock Stock’, and later the director of ‘Rocketman’, has a small role as an urchin who works at the circus.