Director: David Lynch
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft
Streaming: YouTube (Rent, £2.49; Buy, £5.99), Amazon Prime Video (Rent, £3.49; Buy, £6.99), Sky (Rent, £3.49; Buy, £5.99)
I’ve always come to associate David Lynch with the surreal, the abstract, and the dreamlike. These are words you would use to describe his more recent efforts like Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet through to Twin Peaks, which he had more than a hand in creating. His debut, Eraserhead, is a spiritual, horrific, terrifying, and wonderful piece of art. To think he would follow it up with The Elephant Man just three short years later (given that Eraserhead supposedly took between five and ten years to make) utterly bewilders me.
Save for a few minutes in the film’s opening and closing, the vast majority of The Elephant Man is, as many critics describe it, “played straight”. The film is an account of real-life Victorian man Joseph Merrick (John Merrick in the film, played by John Hurt), who was born with a number of serious physical disfigurements. Merrick limps, his head is incredibly enlarged, more than 95% of his body is covered in what look to be scales, and one of his arms is totally useless.
After being acquired from the owner of a freakshow, Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) brings Merrick into the hospital out of a desire first to understand his condition, and second to help him live with it. We then watch with joy as we discover that beneath the deformities, Merrick is a polite, kind, educated, and thoughtful individual - who later comes to ingratiate himself with London high society.
I have a few problems with The Elephant Man, but firstly, let me discuss its exceptional points. Firstly, the make-up and costume design. This is so elaborate and unbelievably believable (to this day) that the Academy was forced to create a new category entirely. This was not a fluke. The make-up took some seven to eight hours to apply to John Hurt’s face, and two hours to remove. Hurt arrived on set at 5AM every day, and filmed from noon to 10PM.
Secondly, the things which Lynch did glean from the success of Eraserhead are there in spades. When Merrick first arrives at the hospital, breathing heavily and saying nothing from beneath a sack tied around his head, the film is unnerving. You don’t get your first look at Merrick’s face in full light until around half an hour in - and it is a shocking moment. Even the posters and trailers for the film used images of Merrick with his face concealed. Lynch knew the spectacle of his make-up team’s painstaking efforts. He almost plays it in the way other directors do for villains in horror movies - despite the fact that Merrick is anything but, and this film is not a horror.
And this is where the film starts to fall short, and I start to wonder: why on earth did David “The Surrealist” Lynch take this gig? Its story is heartwarming enough, although its historic accuracy is debatable, but the majority of its two-hour runtime is just… very straightforward. It effectively ends up being an upper-class London doctor lifting an impoverished, deformed man out of the cruelty of a freak show and learning that he’s got the capacity to read and recite Shakespeare.
The film’s message and themes only get more confusing when Merrick continues to be exploited by the hospital’s aggressively working-class maintenance man for money and laughs. There’s a scene where a band of irreverent, pub-going commonfolk pin Merrick down, force women to kiss him, and pour whiskey over him. And while it is a saddening scene, I can’t help myself but think: what’s the message here? The upper class folk in Victorian England were more civilised, and therefore more moral, more ethical, and altogether better people?
As much as I’m sure this wasn’t Lynch’s intention, this and the relatively straightforward structure of the narrative just leave something to be desired. This is a good story, told well, and the actors do an impeccable job. The make-up, lighting, and set design are phenomenal, and we get flashes of Lynch’s style, to be refined throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but it feels at once both like a stumbling block and an insincere success. Among his wider catalogue of wonderfully bizarre, spooky-strange works, it is oddly out of place. I wonder if he thinks that, too.