Arguably one of David Lynch’s finest works, The Elephant Man was his first major studio film. The inexperienced director only kept his position thanks to the unlikely patronage of comedian Mel Brooks, whose Brooksfilms produced the movie for Paramount. According to Lynch, a private screening of his debut film Eraserhead ended with Brooks declaring, ‘You’re a mad man, I love you. You’re in’. And, as this film shows, it was a great decision.
Lynch makes the jump from American Gothic to Victorian Gothic with ease. The scenes of top hat-wearing doctors searching through the seamier sides of London could be straight out of a RL Stevenson novel, while the film is directed with far more atmosphere and style than anything from the Hammer studio. From the opening shot – a dreamlike image of Merrick’s mother’s ‘encounter’ with an elephant (apparently one did escape from a zoo in Leicester, the real-life Merrick’s hometown, around the time of his birth) – we are clearly in the realm of the fairy tale, a world akin to Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.
The pantomime villains, who resemble Oliver Twist‘s Bill Sykes and Fagin, treat Merrick like a circus side-show. The night porter, in a brilliant turn from Michael Elphick at his most obnoxious, brings drunken revellers to ‘visit’ Merrick (including a young Pauline Quirk), while his former ‘owner’, the fairground showman Bytes, parades him like a performing animal. Tellingly, Bytes is a character invented for the film: the real-life Merrick made a lot of money by exhibiting himself in carnivals, before being robbed by his business partner.
Merrick is rescued by Dr Treves (Anthony Hopkins) who at first seems eager to use him to further his own career. ‘He’s only being stared at all over again’, the head nurse tells him. But when Treves has a crisis of conscience, he puts the simple question to his wife – ‘Am I good man or am I a bad man?’ We are in no doubt as to the answer.
As Merrick becomes more accepted, having tea in the Treves’ drawing room and taking a trip to the theatre, Lynch skilfully avoids the mawkishness of films like Mask. The moments of sentimentality are a result of Merrick’s character, rather than the film trying to provoke an emotional response from the audience. It is Merrick who overreacts, bursting into tears when being ‘treated so well by a beautiful woman’ and placing the actress Mrs Kendal’s signed photo next to one of his mother. John Hurt puts in a great emotional performance through all of the latex and make-up; Hopkins does just as well through the doctor’s equally confining middle-class restraint.
As with all such tales, morality is simplified into two polar extremes (‘twin peaks’ of good and evil) with little grey area in between. The Elephant Man is depicted as an innocent whose soul is as beautiful as his body is ugly (a twist on Dorian Gray perhaps). As we gradually get to know him, we discover him to be god-fearing, well-spoken (without a hint of a Leicester accent), sensitive and even romantic. ‘You’re not an elephant man, you’re Romeo’, Mrs Kendal (Anne Bancroft) tells him after reading a scene together.
The Elephant Man is a beautiful film, and not simply because of Freddie Francis’s monochrome cinematography. It is a story told with just the right amount of wonder and emotion (although Barber’s Adagio has perhaps been overused since). The combination of David Lynch and Britain’s finest acting talent – Gielgud even makes an appearance – makes you wish he’d made more films in the UK.