Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: Christopher De Vore & Eric Bergren & David Lynch based on the book by Sir Frederick Treves.
Starring: Anthony Hopkins (Frederick Treves), John Hurt (John Merrick), Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Kendal), John Gielgud (Carr Gomm), Wendy Hiller (Mothershead), Freddie Jones (Bytes), Michael Elphick (Night Porter), Hannah Gordon (Mrs. Treves), Helen Ryan (Princess Alex), John Standing (Fox), Dexter Fletcher (Bytes' Boy), Lesley Dunlop (Nora), Phoebe Nicholls (Merrick's Mother).
The Elephant Man is undoubtedly the most conventional film that David Lynch has ever directed. It tells the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), who was born with hideous deformities in Victorian Age England, spent much of his life as a circus freak, before being brought to a London hospital by Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), and shown kindness, and given a home, for the first time in his life. The message of the movie is simple – Merrick had every reason to hate humanity, for he saw its ugliest side, and never did. He was an inspiration. How much this gels with the facts of Merrick’s actual life, I’ll leave for others to decide. But in Lynch’s film, everything is fairly straight forward. Yes, the film is well made – you can tell it’s by the same director who made Eraserhead just three years before, because of its visuals, and its sound. But it’s such a dull story, and it isn’t particularly given an original, or unique, treatment. It’s the type of “inspirational” true story that ends up getting nominated for a bunch of Oscars, than being forgotten. Which of course is what happened with The Elephant Man. Although the film didn’t win any Oscars – it was nominated for 8, including Lynch’s first for Best Director. It remains the only film he directed to get a Best Picture nomination. There’s a reason for that – Lynch usually doesn’t make films that groups like the Academy find palatable. That he did so with The Elephant Man should tell you that it’s one of the least “Lynch-ian” of all Lynch films.
The films opens with a bizarre scene (perhaps the most Lynch moment in the film actually), where Merrick’s mother is being trampled (raped?) by a heard of stampeding elephants. It’s a bizarre scene, and doesn’t much fit in with the rest of the movie, but it’s something to behold. From there, the movie follows Treves as discovers Merrick at a freak show – where he is “owned” by Bytes (Freddie Jones), who treats him horribly, beating, taunting him, locking him in cages, etc. Treves is amazed by what he sees – Merrick’s head is huge and misshapen – almost always covered by a hood. He has strange skin all over body. Treves knows that he cannot cure Merrick – nobody can – but he wants to help him. Bytes wants his prized possession back – and accuses Treves of doing the same thing he did – basically, putting him on display. Bytes’ isn’t entirely wrong – but Treves does try and help Merrick. He speaks to him kindly, and insists on everyone doing the same. He introduces him to popular society – some who are genuinely sympathetic, and others who just want to say they’ve seen the now famed Elephant Man. Merrick maintains his humanity and kindness throughout – and although he runs away once again when he is humiliated, he comes back once again as well. His life, according to the movie, should serve as an inspiration.
I’m not entirely sold on that message – as least as it delivered in the film. I think a big reason for that is that I’m not as sold on John Hurt’s performance as many are (he received one the film’s Oscar nomination for best actor – losing to Robert DeNiro for Raging Bull). Hurt is covered by so much makeup, that I think it ends up hurting his performance. The makeup itself was made of casts of the real Merrick, so it is accurate, but Hurt is so buried under it, I didn’t get much from that performance. The eyes are the only part of Hurt visible, and he does as good a job with them as he can, but even they cannot help in the scenes where Merrick is wearing a mask. Hurt speaks in such a soft voice throughout the film, that at times it’s hard to understand him. It doesn’t help that the movie has him go from a guy who won’t speak a word, to elegantly quoting Shakespeare, and having refined afternoon tea in a matter of a few short scenes. I’m also not quite sure what to make of the movie’s final scene of Merrick’s – which seem to imply he ended his own life on purpose (we had been told, more than once, during the course of the movie that Merrick has to sleep sitting up, because if he lied down, he would asphyxiate – yet in that final scene, that’s precisely what he does – purposefully, too). It’s hard not to think that awards voters back in 1980 were impressed with the makeup – and the big “I am NOT an animal” scene late in the film, and overlooked the rest of what is a rather bland performance.
The rest of the cast is better. Hopkins who has to navigate his complicated feelings about Merrick, worrying that he is exploiting him, but trying hard to treat him with kindness. John Gielgud as Treves’ boss, who at first isn’t sure about keeping Merrick, but changes his tune when he meets him. Wendy Hiller as the veteran nurse, who hard exterior masks a woman of genuine concern. Anne Bancroft, in just a few short scenes, as a famed actress who shows Merrick real, not faked, compassion. Jones as Bytes, who really does seem to miss Merrick when he comes looking for him, despite how cruel he is most of the time. Michael Elphick as The Night Porter, who exploits Merrick for his own gain. Elphick is good, but the whole storyline with his character doesn’t really work – especially the way it ends. We’ve clearly seen him sneak people into see Merrick before, who knows it is happening (and doesn’t say anything) – but the final time he does it, Merrick seems shocked, and it causes him to run away. Then we get a scene where Treves’ confronts him, and is backed up by Hiller’s nurse, which is supposed to be a feel good scene, but comes across as phony.
The best thing about the movie is the way it looks and sounds. Lynch worked with cinematographer Freddie Francis for the first time (they’d work together again on Dune and The Straight Story), and the black and white photography is wonderful – recalling the look of Eraserhead. Lynch once again worked with Alan Splet on the sound – and while the wall of sound effect isn’t as constant as it was in Eraserhead, Lynch does use it to great effect when it is utilized. Lynch worked with Frederick Elmes (who had shot Eraserhead) once again on the visual effects in the movie, and has moments where it works brilliantly. While I think the makeup work ultimately hurts John Hurt’s performance, it is quite an achievement in itself, and helps Lynch make the compare and contrast between Merrick and Victoria society. While Merrick is ugly on the outside, he is a good person underneath. Victoria England has a veneer of civilization, hiding a deep seeded ugliness. Lynch doesn’t develop this theme much – but it’s there.
The Elephant Man is far from a bad movie – anything with black & white photography this good, and sound design this unique is worth seeing. There are many elements of the film that actually work quite well. But both times I’ve seen the film, I could not help but be disappointed in it. I understand that this was Lynch’s first studio film – perhaps he felt he had to mute some of his weirdness to get any work at all. And hey, it worked. He ended up an Oscar nominated filmmaker, with a critical, awards and box office success on his second film – which would allow him to go onto bigger (but not better judging on his next film) things. It’s just when I normally think of a Lynch film, I think of a film only he could make. On Lynch could have made Eraserhead for example. There are a lot of people who could have made The Elephant Man.