Whilst attending a carnival, well-to-do surgeon Mr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) sees John Merrick (John Hurt), a 21-year-old man born with such severe physical disfigurements that he is displayed as “The Elephant Man”. After Merrick receives another in a series of beatings from his “owner” Bytes (Freddie Jones), Treves takes Merrick into the hospital and cares for the man, slowly uncovering the person behind the appearance.
/The Elephant Man has a reputation for being the film David Lynch made to prove he could make a “proper” film, one with a coherent narrative and devoid of imagery that will prevent you from sleeping for at least a week, in order to disprove the naysayers who claimed all he could produce was incomprehensible dreamscapes and nonsense. As such, this has been the closest I’ve come to looking forward to watching a David Lynch film. I’d also heard it was rather good, so there’s that too. As it turned out, the latter part about it being good is absolutely correct, but I’d argue that this isn’t entirely devoid of Lynch’s trademark insanity, but it is used in a far more restrained fashion than in, say, Eraserhead, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.
The Lynchy-ness comes in the form of the dream sequences, often a cause for trepidation in my book. Women with glazed expressions have visions of marching elephants knocking them down, before the women writhe and scream on the floor. There’s another dream sequence later on that seemed even more bizarre, but I’ll let them off on this instance because of how good the rest of the film is, and because that first visual oddity turns out to be something of a back story for Merrick, whose mother was apparently knocked down and trampled by an elephant 4 months into her pregnancy with him. The visuals, along with the accompanying infant screams and the stark black-and-white photography all seemed Lynch-like to me, but not too much, which was good.
What really worked was the performances across the board. Hopkins plays it relatively straight as the buttoned-up man who starts out referring to Merrick as “It” but soon grows more than fond of the man and understands there is far more to him than meets the eye. John Gielgud is his usual entertainingly posh self as the hospital’s governor, and Freddie Jones is also terrific as Merrick’s handler (with a super-young Dexter Fletcher as his assistant! Pauline Quirke also shows up later as “2nd Whore”, and Kenny Baker plays “Plumed Dwarf” at a carnival). Of course, the real star though is John Hurt and the terrific effects work undertaken to transform him into something pretty darn close to the real John Merrick (actual name: Joseph). Despite the facial limitations Hurt is able to convey a character it’s almost impossible not to root for. His physicality is tremendous – Merrick also suffered from numerous bodily deformities such as an essentially redundant, club-like right arm and a severely curved spine – and the various degrees of communication Hurt achieves are very well done too.
It helps that the story is so compelling and sympathetic too, with some moments being almost agonising to watch, whilst others were close to drawing a tear from the eye. Some of the hardships Merrick was put through are beyond barbaric and often proved aggravating – even in the hospital, one of the guards manages to exploit him – and Hopkins’ Treves goes on a revelatory journey himself as he doubts how helpful he is being to John’s life, and whether anything has really changed for the better.
It’s a pretty much perfect film (although the use of near-constant background noice became somewhat oppressive after a while, it seems there’s always something whirring or humming somewhere) with some scenes that have justifiably become famous – I already knew John’s defiant “I am not an animal!” speech, and it was incredibly well implemented at the end of another scene of John’s pitiful treatment at the hands of the everyday folk. At times this won’t be an easy watch, but it’s definitely a powerful one.
Choose Film 9/10