The name of director David Lynch is certainly synonymous with surreal films that have bizarre plots and often don’t make a lot of sense. As a result Lynch’s films don’t really feature heavily at any of the Oscar ceremonies and he’s only ever had one film which made it on to the Best Picture nominee list.
The film in question, and Lynch’s second feature, is The Elephant Man which is based on two biographies chronicling the story of John Merrick. The deformed Merrick is initially seen in a Victorian Freak Show where he’s rescued by Frederick Treves, a surgeon at the London Hospital. Treves believes that Merrick’s treatment is the reason that he’s treated like a freak and attempts to get him to talk. Treves’ colleagues at the hospital are initially sceptical of his treatment of Merrick with many feeling that he’s brought him in as a patient simply to further his own career. But, when Merrick is finally able to speak of his own volition, the hospital’s governor decides to allow Treves to continue to treat ‘The Elephant Man’ at the London. Soon publicity for Merrick grows and respected actress Madge Kendal comes to visit him partly out of curiosity. The kindly but stern hospital matron Mrs Mothershead believes that Merrick is still being treated like a fairground attraction even if Treves thinks otherwise. Meanwhile the hospital’s night porter begins to profit out of Merrick’s presence at the institution as he takes money for people to come and stare at the Elephant Man. During one of these trips Merrick’s former owner, brutish freak show proprietor Bytes, kidnaps him and smuggles him to Europe. In the end it’s up to his fellow freaks to show that they are in fact the only people to show some sort of compassion. The film ends with one of Lynch’s trademark surreal sequences as Merrick is coaxed from this world into the next by his loving mother.
There’s no denying that The Elephant Man is a fantastic film. Freddie Francis’ black and white photography really adds to the legitimacy of the story and the period setting. Lynch builds up perfectly to the first unveiling of John Merrick and therefore his deformity is all the more shocking. The make-up department deserves credit for their work on making John Hurt completely indistinguishable and it’s a shame that the film was released a year before the make-up Oscar was reintroduced. Hurt himself puts in a fabulous performance as we see Merrick go from hopeless freak show act to well-respected member of society. Anthony Hopkins is equally strong as Treves and he essentially has to play the straight man against all of the wonderfully colourful supporting characters. Chief among these characters is Bytes, played with rigour by Freddie Jones, who is a perfect villain as is Michael Elphick’s sinister night porter. Now appearing in her sixth decade on the list, Wendy Hiller puts in a memorable term as Matron Mothershead whilst Anne Bancroft is well-utilised as Madge Kendal. It was interesting for me to see a few familiar faces with smaller roles whether it be Pauline Quirke in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it turn or Dexter Fletcher a Bytes’ young assistant. The script, co-written by Lynch, looks at human nature and in particular if Merrick or those that profit from him are in fact the real freaks. Despite all these positives, I couldn’t really ever connect with The Elephant Man on a personal level and therefore I found myself emotionally detached from it for the most part. Whilst I found Hurt’s performance as Merrick sympathetic I never truly care about his fate and instead simply appreciated the film as a whole. Ultimately I would say that The Elephant Man was definitely a film that I felt was well-made but not one that I was ever entertained by.