David Lynch reigned in the surreal abstractions of his previous film (”Eraserhead”) to deliver a more palatable experience with “The Elephant Man”, but where “Eraserhead” delivered an unnerving dreamscape from where viewers pull their own, usually psychosexual, meanings out of, “The Elephant Man” man depicts a (mostly) true story. A reality, not a dream. It’s still very much a Lynch film, but one using reality to prod at dreams, rather than the other way around.
The surreal bookend sequences of the film, the gorgeous crisp black-and-white visuals, the fascination with the dichotomy between the clinical perfections of a society and the grotesqueness underneath it, these are all classic Lynch. But having to stick to the bones of a true story and a very real man sees the narrative of the film become a lot more didactic and have a hell of a lot more narrative and thematic clarity than most Lynch films. I don’t think this is a bad thing. While I personally prefer his more surreal films, I think “The Elephant Man” is a very cohesive experience that melds Lynch’s particular stylistic touches with the truth of John Merrick’s life very well. Merrick’s life, and the way others reacted it, plays so well into Lynch’s sort of primal obsessions that rather than feel like a dulled, commercial affair, the film feels like a happy marriage between an auteur and an inherently understandable story.
Anthony Hopkins did strong, understated work as Frederick Treves, charting the way he oscillates from venality to compassion, but it’s John Hurt as John Merrick himself that stole the film. Hurt captured the humanity of the man beneath all that (very impressively done) make-up and prosthetic work, not only in a broad sense, but in way that conveyed the specific personality of Merrick. Hurt, and the film itself, aren’t merely using Merrick as a lens through which to ask questions of society and to promote the idea of common humanity and compassion for all. They’re also telling the specific story of the specific man. Merrick wasn’t an animal, and nor was he just a symbol, he was a man of his own.
It’s a moving, powerful film, where everything comes together splendidly. I give it four and a half psalms, and a treasured photo.