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The Elephant Man

#565 - The Elephant Man
David Lynch, 1980

Based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a person born with significant physical deformities who is initially resigned to being a sideshow freak until a doctor decides to take him away for study.

For a filmmaker that's built such a reputation on wild surrealism, it's interesting to see David Lynch balance his cinematic sensibilities against more fundamentally accessible conventions. The Elephant Man marks his second feature after his years-in-the-making Eraserhead and shares many similarities with that film. The Elephant Man transposes the same monochromatic industrial landscape and focus on grotesqueries from Eraserhead's dark fantasy world to the grimy real-life setting of Victorian England. Here, a respected physician (Anthony Hopkins) learns about the existence of a sideshow freak known as the "Elephant Man" (John Hurt), so named for the birth defects he developed due to his mother being attacked by an elephant while he was still in utero. When Hopkins sees him living in squalor and incapable of speech, he opts to spirit him away to a hospital so as to investigate his unique physical condition. It turns out that, despite growing up as little more than a revolting curiosity, Hurt has normal intelligence and emotions; however, even the good intentions of Hopkins and other characters aren't enough to stop many people from mistreating Hurt.

The Elephant Man does have the occasional Lynchian touches here and there as it creates disturbing combinations of sound and vision (especially during its opening scenes and during one nightmarish depiction of events) but otherwise it is an incredibly straightforward film. It gets by on the considerable strength of its performers, especially Hopkins and Hurt; Hopkins may play an appropriately conflicted character who worries about whether he is helping or exploiting Hurt, all the while lending gravitas to his role as a learned man whose natural sympathies cause him to side with Hurt. As the titular Elephant Man, Hurt delivers an appropriately nuanced performance from underneath layers of make-up, reciting increasingly loquacious dialogue through the most dignified of rasps. It's a credit to these two and to others (such as John Gielgud as an initially belligerent hospital administrator and Anne Bancroft as a renowned stage performer whose intrigue with Hurt goes beyond a crude fascination with his appearance) that they take what could have been an otherwise stolid biopic and turn it into something that's affecting without being manipulative and striking without being ostentatious. Other characters play relatively minor parts, whether it's immoral yet entrepreneurial hospital staff looking to make a living off bringing gawky spectators to Hurt's quarters or carnival folk who genuinely believe that the freak show is where Hurt truly belongs and that removing him from that environment is a harsher act than leaving him there. Lynch has long since established himself as a director who cares about even the smallest of roles in his films, and it shows even in one of his earliest films.

In terms of technique, I seriously can't imagine this film being as good as it is without the black-and-white cinematography. When it comes to any film that's made in the era where colour cinematography is the widely available and accepted norm, any film that can not only make it work but feel essential to the film as a whole has to be impressive; if you have to seriously struggle to think of this film in colour (much less improved by colour), then that's most definitely a success. The music is period-appropriate, though it does resort to deranged-sounding carnival tunes a bit too often for its own good, threatening to ruin genuinely disturbing moments in the process. Otherwise, the score is good - of note is the usage of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" in a way that threatens to steal it away from Platoon completely (and that's saying something). Though I still think it doesn't quite have what it takes to overrun more stereotypically Lynchian fare such as Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive, I do reckon that The Elephant Man is an all-around outstanding film that deserves to be seen by...well, everybody. It's not too weird to alienate wide audiences but not too safe and comfortable to become totally forgettable either. With his sophomore feature, Lynch crafts one of his best works, which is good enough to transcend his trademark brand of weirdness. Seek it out.