The mot juste to describe David Lynch‘s brilliant adaptation of the true story of The Elephant Man is dignified. Dignity is applied in equal measure in production values and as the key leitmotif not only of the eponymous character but of the ensemble, worn almost as a badge of honour, though the false intent of some is not ignored. The true nature of dignity shines through the movie like a beacon; it is the sheer power of dignity that causes us to weep buckets at this movie, and also the quality that attracted so many great talents to participate in the production.
The story of Joseph “John” Merrick, a man so hideously deformed that he horrified polite society and was reduced, in spite of an education by his much-loved mother, his gentle demeanour and, yes, his humility and dignity, to being a circus freak, treated by his showman “owner” as a slave and beaten without mercy, is well-known. The dramatisation, initially for stage in 1979 (on which the movie claims not to be based), was simple, effective and wisely avoided overplaying its trump card in the form of over-sentimentality.
At the time, David Lynch had made one picture, the innovative and hair-raising surrealist horror movie Eraserhead (included in my list of the scariest movies) completed while he was still a student of filmmaking and was largely unknown in the industry. Winning over executive producer Mel Brooks to direct this project was his next piece of good fortune.
Beyond that, Lynch and the production team attracted one of the finest casts, almost entirely British, imaginable by virtue of the worthiness of the subject matter. They include John Hurt (of whom more later), Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft (playing a real-life English actress), Michael Elphick (the same cockney spiv he often played), Dexter Fletcher, Hannah Gordon and more. They all embody the same dignity, to various degrees.
The Elephant Man was the making of Lynch’s career, and testament to the exacting attention to detail he put into crafting the raw material, sculpting a movie worthy of being called a modern classic. Like Eraserhead it was shot in black and white, but there the similarity ends. The cinematography by Freddie Francis is beyond superlative, recapturing the grim atmosphere of Victorian England, a direct contrast to the genteel refinement of Treves’s home, as effectively as any movie I know.
Lynch deliberately adopts an old-fashioned style of direction: “teasers”; rapid fades; close-ups to ensure the audience has spotted the key message (like a ‘no entry’ sign, for example); dreams sequences, superimposing elements on screen; his camera angles and more. The background music is light and orchestral, the action focused on the reaction of characters, the mood simple, the plot very light, but the focus on portraying the bittersweet tale of the character without emotional manipulation very successful.
Of course none of this would work were it not for a truly credible central performance by Hurt, masked beneath layers of disfiguring prosthetics and a grotesque walk. The character is at first masked, literally and figuratively, but gradually comes to the fore – and only then is his true dignity revealed to the audience. To act at all with such make-up (which astonishingly was not awarded an Oscar) is amazed, but to do so such that the audience can believe completely in your character and his sheer humanity is worthy of note.
The two scenes where this is most apparent are these: Treves invites Merrick to tea at his home, and to meet his wife Ann (Hannah Gordon). Initially Merrick weeps to be received as an equal by a beautiful woman, but when the conversation turns to photographs, and Merrick shows a picture of the mother whose whereabouts he does not know, it is Ann who cries; secondly, when Merrick is helped back to Britain from Ostende by other circus performers and takes a train to London, he is pursued at the platform by people clocking his identity, until he is cornered in the toilet by people wishing to gorp at his appearance. “I am not the Elephant Man! I am not an animal. I am a man!” he yells back at them, a speech reminiscent of Patrick McGooghan‘s impassioned turn as The Prisoner.
However, for pure brilliance of acting in his role I’d also draw your attention to Freddie Jones as Bytes, in what was surely the performance of a career. Jones matches Hurt’s nobility with sheer intense dignity and self-worth he applies to the character of Bytes, the fairground hustler who is essentially cruel, despicable, contemptible, heartless and selfish in equal measure – though Treves also compares himself to Bytes later in the movie. It is a breathtaking performance in an utterly unsympathetic role, one worthy of the highest accolades, but just one of many great talents on display.
The movie leaves us with a clear message: horribly deformed Merrick may have been, and always on display to be seen by the curious, but without doubt he was more than just a man, he was a true gentleman. Take your tissues!