In 1884 London the physician Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) meets John Merrick (John Hurt), a severely deformed and apparently non-verbal young man living in a carnival show. Taking Merrick in to the hospital where we works, Treves starts on what he thinks will be a career-defining achievement – but which instead transforms into a once-in-a-lifetime friendship.
If one was to purposefully imagine a hilariously unlikely film production, it might go something along the lines of The Elephant Man: a British historical drama produced by comedy legend Mel Brooks, and directed by David Lynch as a follow-up to his 1977 cult debut Eraserhead. So concerned was Brooks that audiences would see his name on the poster and get the wrong idea that he went uncredited, despite the film winning the BAFTA for Best Picture, the Cesar for Best Foreign Feature, and gaining eight Oscar nominations.
It is a remarkable achievement in narrative filmmaking, with a strong screenplay, impeccable direction, and uniformly superb performances. It turns 40 years old this year, and thanks to atmospheric black and white photography and an gloriously old-fashioned cadence to the acting it really does not feel as if it has aged that much.
It recounts the true story of Joseph Merrick (named John in the film), working in a circus freak show and living with an undiagnosed and still-unknown genetic disorder (subsequent dna tests were inconclusive). In the tradition of most biographical films, it plays things loosely with documented events – all to tell a better story – but still captures the core of a remarkable man who lived through severe adversity yet died having been enthusiastically embraced by Victorian high society.
Much of the film’s creative success comes down to John Hurt, unrecognisable beneath extensive prosthetic make-up. It is simply not possibly to use a similarly disabled performer to play Merrick: his condition was too rare and his physical appearance unique. Handled a tremendous responsibility – to portray a disabled man with honesty and dignity – Hurt does a tremendous job. This is one of the performances that cemented him as one of my all-time favourite male actors.
Lynch’s film delivers a dignified presentation of disability as well. As Merrick’s life grows to include meet-and-greets with London’s rich elites, the film’s screenplay is canny enough to interrogate where his life is actually headed. Is there really a difference, Merrick’s chief nurse Mothershead (Wendy Hiller) asks, between being paraded in a side alley freak show and being paraded in front of high society? The question goes unanswered, as the provocation is enough.
It would be remiss not to at least mention the film’s superb supporting cast, including Hiller’s stern Mothershead, Anthony Hopkins’ thoughtful protrayal of Treves, and Freddie Jones’ wonderfully unpleasant sideshow owner Mr Bytes. Fans of film history might get a kick out of noticing a young Dexter Fletcher as Bytes’ assistant: after a fruitful career as a child actor (and a shout-out to all of the Press Gang fans in the audience) he became a feature director in his own right via such films as Rocketman and Sunshine on Leith.
This is by far the most conventional of David Lynch’s films, and thus perhaps it is the easiest with which to demonstrate his immense skill at narrative story-telling. He is one of the greatest American filmmakers of the past half-century. This is one of his greatest films.