David Lynch’s first venture into a traditional narrative, The Elephant Man is a poignant, sensitively made film with pitch-perfect casting and beautiful cinematography. On the surface a fairly straight retelling of the life of John Merrick, this quickly proves to be one of the best film biopics of all-time, staying loyal to the subject whilst also retaining the director’s unique filmmaking style.
John Hurt gives a career-defining performance as Merrick, the unfortunate man born riddled with physical deformities so extensive that he is labelled The Elephant Man. First discovered in a freak show, Merrick is discovered and cared for by the kindly Dr Treves (Anthony Hopkins). When his presence in the hospital becomes common knowledge though, history begins to repeat itself as he begins to be exploited again, but in a different way.
Hurt makes his character painfully human and expressive, even from beneath prosthetics that are still some pretty realistic even by today’s standards. It would be so easy to make Merrick too sentimental and while the screenplay sometimes veers this way, Hurt’s performance is full of quiet dignity as he shows Merrick evolve from the withdrawn, non-verbal figure at the start, to the sensitive, cultured soul he really is.
The film also contains an uncharacteristically subtle performance from Anthony Hopkins as the doctor who discovers Merrick, alongside a truly excellent supporting cast. On paper these roles are largely anonymous, but as played by Anne Bancroft, Wendy Hiller and John Gielgud, they all come to life as touching and nuanced characters, played to perfection – There are also very early turns from Dexter Fletcher and Pauline Quirke! Hannah Gordon is especially affecting as Hopkins’ wife, breaking down in a particularly memorable scene. The flipside of this, the more exploitative, unappealing side of humanity, is represented through the characters played by Michael Elphick as the brutish night porter and Freddie Jones as the freak-show ringleader. Jones in particular is perfectly cast and brings a strange melancholy to a deeply unpleasant character.
While the film veers wildly from reality in places (Merrick actually approached the freak show himself, and was paid handsomely for his appearances) the individual scenes ring true as far as the public’s attitude to Merrick, and Lynch doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the morally questionable way people profited from his disfigurement. It’s overly sentimental in places but for every cloying moment is a scene of unbearable cruelty. Human kindness is shown alongside human venality, and this prevents the film getting mawkish or saccharine.
There are also a fair few Lynchian touches within this more traditional narrative. There is a disturbing dream sequence that is more than a little reminiscent of his previous film Eraserhead, and his preoccupation with the industrial revolution is very much in evidence, with a soundtrack full of hissing steam and metallic clunking, that must have been an influence on Dave Eggers‘ The Lighthouse.
This was Lynch’s first commercial and critical success, and it’s not difficult to see why – it’s humane, moving and remains the most visually impressive film he has ever made. With a transfer created from the original camera negative and overseen by the director, this release looks utterly beautiful. The legendary Freddie Francis makes excellent use of panoramic lenses, and the crisp black and white cinematography is stunningly evocative.
The Elephant Man is proof, if need be, that even when Lynch works in a more traditional narrative he can still knock it out of the park. Both beautiful and devastating, this is one of the all-time great biopics and a near perfect film.
Home Entertainment Extras:
- – BFI Q&A with Jonathan Sanger
- – Interview with stills photographer Frank Connor
- – Interview with David Lynch
- – Interview with John Hurt
- – Mike Figgis interviews David Lynch
- – The Air Is On Fire: Interview with David Lynch at Cartier Foundation
- – Joseph Merrick, The Real Elephant Man
- – The Terrible Elephant Man Revealed
- – Behind The Scenes Stills Gallery
Studiocanal is re-releasing The Elephant Man with a 4K restoration for its 40th anniversary with a cinema launch from March 13th