(1980) Directed by David Lynch; Written by: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren and David Lynch; Based on the books The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu; Starring: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud and Freddie Jones
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Rating: **** ½
“People are frightened by what they don’t understand. And it’s so hard to understand, even for me, because my mother was so beautiful.” – John Merrick (John Hurt)
Considering that his only prior feature-length film to date was Eraserhead, David Lynch seemed an unlikely choice to helm a major studio production such as The Elephant Man. Perhaps just as odd was the pairing of Lynch with producer Mel Brooks and his production company, Brooksfilms Limited, to bring the decidedly grim tale of Joseph Merrick (John Merrick in the film) to the big screen. While this cooperative venture surely raised an eyebrow or two, the end result suggests that strange bedfellows could yield exceptional results. In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine any other director handling the material as well, deftly merging art and popular entertainment. The Elephant Man is at once familiar and novel, with its conventional biopic plot, juxtaposed with the sort of unique surreal flourishes that one would come to expect from Lynch. While it’s definitely accessible, a closer examination reveals it’s not so far removed from Lynch’s previous effort. Both films deal with deformity, isolation and otherness, set amidst an industrial backdrop
It would be easy to veer on a tangent about what doesn’t match up between Merrick’s real life versus the character’s reel life, but that would be missing the point. More relevant, is how The Elephant Man addresses the subject matter. As a work of fiction based on real people and events, the film encapsulates “civilized” society’s less than civil response to Merrick’s affliction. Lynch chooses a stylized approach that favors an expressionistic interpretation over slavish devotion to the details of Merrick’s life. In the dreamlike opening scene, we catch of glimpse of Merrick’s alleged origins, as his mother is knocked down by an elephant. Of course, it’s nothing more than sideshow ballyhoo, but the scene as presented here is organic to the story, as myth intersects with reality.
Freddie Francis’ cinematography, shot in gorgeous black and white, creates the perfect backdrop to tell Merrick’s story. We’re immersed in a hellish depiction of industrial age England, dominated by shadows and gaslight. Francis’ lens dwells lovingly on 19th century machinery, filthy alleyways and a seedy circus sideshow. This inhospitable environment is accompanied by John Morris’ effective score, which evokes a dark carnival. The score also introduced many to Samuel Barber’s classical piece, “Adagio for Strings,” providing an appropriate somber mood. Lynch contributed to the sound design, transforming Victorian-era London into a living organism, with the clamor of factories and steam engines coursing through its veins.
Christopher Tucker developed the unforgettable makeup by studying the real Merrick’s bone structure and death mask. As John Merrick, John Hurt is unrecognizable beneath the extensive makeup, but his performance shines through. Born with an incurable, disfiguring disease, Merrick is the object of scorn and revulsion by greater society, and reduced to slavery as the star attraction in a traveling freak show. Hurt does a commendable job conveying an individual whose life is overwhelmed by abject misery. Through eye movement, gestures and limited speech, he manages to create a portrait of physical and mental pain that would be unendurable for most. The mere act of sleeping becomes a life or death struggle, as Merrick must remain propped up by a mountain of pillows to support the weight of his head.
Anthony Hopkins plays the virtuous (and ambitious) Dr. Frederick Treves, who rescues Merrick from his abusive handler Bytes (Freddie Jones). Treves initially takes Merrick’s reticence as a sign of diminished cognitive capacity, but soon discovers an intelligent, thoughtful human being lying beneath the horribly distorted exterior. On the other hand, while Treves’ motives seem superficially noble, the film raises the question whether or not he’s really much better than Bytes. In the course of moving from the circus to the hospital, Merrick transitioned from one form of exploitation to another. He’s simply become fodder for a higher class of gawkers. Although Treves arguably risked his professional reputation to serve as Merrick’s advocate, he had everything to gain by his munificence.
It’s easy to see why The Elephant Man appealed to David Lynch’s sensibilities, with its grotesque themes, depiction of unfathomable suffering, and struggles for identity. It represented one of the rare moments in cinema when the material and the artist were perfectly suited for one another. Despite a conventional narrative, the film could be called subversive by virtue of the fact that it introduced mainstream audiences to Lynch and his singular vision. It was unusual enough to attract the art house crowd, yet engaging enough to appeal to those with less esoteric tastes. This deeply affecting tale could be called a David Lynch movie for people who claim they don’t like David Lynch movies (I remember seeing this with my parents in the theater, so yes, it’s the perfect Lynch film to watch with your mom). Like all good films, The Elephant Man taps into some universal truths. It affirms the best and worst of human nature: the depths that some people will sink to denigrate others who are different, as well as the heights that others will take to rise above ignorance and hatred.