When you think of David Lynch it’s easy to think of films like the painfully long and totally nonsensical Inland Empire, and forget how great he is at directing more traditional films. I mean traditional in the sense of having clearly defined characters and a sequential narrative, because The Elephant Man is far from your average movie.
When I first watched The Elephant Man several years ago I was blown away by how sympathetic the character was. The kind-hearted but desperately sad Merrick makes for a devastatingly emotional combination which never feels schmaltzy or cloying. And it instantly became one of my favourite films.
Based on the real-life story of Joseph Merrick, a man born with serious deformities across his body, it follows his relationship with Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a physician who discovers him in the hope of learning more about his condition.
While freak shows might have long gone out of fashion, fascination with Merrick has never gone away, and it’s hard to conclude this isn’t due to our obsession with the unusual rather than genuine medical interest. What The Elephant Man does is show the man beneath the condition, to the point where by the end of the film you scarcely notice his disfigurements.
The Elephant Man, as with Ghandi, shows a respect for its source material that is less common in the genre now. In a sense it’s similar to The Theory of Everything; the story of someone with severe physical limitations, who is intelligent and refined beneath their debilitating exterior. But where The Theory of Everything had to impose a cheesy romantic narrative on the presumably not interesting enough story of Stephen Hawking’s life, The Elephant Man remains true to actual events.
Even so, as with Gandhi it’s honest enough to emphasise the compromises necessitated by the transition to film, such is its respect for Merrick’s story, which it does by changing the name of Merrick from Joseph to John. It’s also one of the greatest depictions of Victorian London ever put to film. The attention to detail in the monochrome photography is superb without a fake-looking moment, and the superb prosthetics used to bring Merrick to life are equally flawless.
It’s a more perfect film than Gandhi, remaining highly focussed on its two main characters, allowing Hurt and Hopkins, two of the greatest actors of their generation, to fly together. Hopkins captures the complexities of the ambitious doctor who wants to make a name for himself, but needs to balance this against his duty to care for his patients. The screenplay doesn’t shy away from making him thoroughly Victorian in his mannerisms and attitudes, but Hopkins’ performance allows Treve’s humanity to shine through.
One of the central questions of the film is whether Treves is any better than Bytes (Freddie Jones), the man who considers himself Merrick’s ‘owner’ and exhibits him in freak shows. They both use Merrick for their own ends, but can be said to be benefiting John (the real life Merrick volunteered himself to be exhibited, as his best chance of earning his keep in Victorian society). The chief difference is that Treves questions the ethics of this, and when the accusation of exploitation is made against him, takes steps to remedy this. He also treats Merrick with far more dignity and respect than his circus master.
Perfect in every way, this is arguably the greatest film ever made.