When dealing with subject matter such as a highly deformed man, one runs the risk of stooping to deliberate sentimentality or even unwitting sentimentality. However, only the scene where Anthony Hopkins, as Dr. Frederick Treves, gives John Hurt, as John Merrick, a grooming box does Hurt’s performance as the Elephant Man seem a bit overwrought. Furthermore, avoiding all sentimentality would create a dispassionate rendering of a subject that should not be viewed with cold objectivity, for it would be inhuman.
With The Elephant Man, Mr. Lynch weaves a tale of morality as though it emanated from the pages of a long lost Dickens novel. If one were to open the pages of a Charles Dickens book and envision being transported to the world of dreary old London, I doubt the most fertile of imaginations could provide the atmospheric setting that Lynch recreates in the film when The Elephant Man is not sheltered by the good doctor Treves. Lynch also provides a cultural dichotomy with the grand Victorian looking settings of the doctor’s home, the opera hall and the room in the hospital.
Overlaying this atmosphere is a direction that eventually lets the viewer see past the mask of the Elephant Man and into his very soul. Yet the film can also be looked at as a reverse confessional. The Elephant Man’s face is a mirror that others glance into. Some don’t like what they see and some, like Mr. Treves, are able to see beyond it. But for many characters in the film, their sins are manifest through their negative reaction to and acting out against Mr. Merrick.
I doubt if Anthony Hopkins could ever give a bad performance, maybe out of pride and his gifts as an actor that allow him to paint a character with subtle shadings that others are incapable of. John Hurt, although hidden behind the impressively done makeup, also puts in a fine performance balancing the pain of the character with a stream of hope. The Elephant Man eventually travels down that stream into the hereafter. A fitting and gripping ending, since the film can be viewed as a religious parable.