This beautiful, measured and rather atypical movie by David Lynch from 1980 is now on re-release, written for the screen by Lynch with Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren. It tells the story of John Merrick, the “Elephant Man”, a Victorian-era person with disfigurements who was rescued from a cruel fairground show by the concerned physician Frederick Treves and established as a fashionable figure in London society, despite nagging fears that Merrick had simply become a grander and more acceptable form of freak attraction.
John Hurt, in complex and intricate prosthetics, plays Merrick with an unforgettably distinctive, gentle, quavering voice. Anthony Hopkins is Treves, the muscular Victorian man of science who rescues him; John Gielgud is the stern hospital chief Mr Carr-Gomm who becomes an advocate for Merrick, as does the no-nonsense matron, robustly played by Wendy Hiller. Anne Bancroft plays the stage star Madge Kendal, who takes a kindly interest.
The film is different from the stage play of the same name, in which David Bowie played Merrick in 1980-81, as did Bradley Cooper in the recent London revival with a voice clearly inspired by Hurt. The play suggests a daring sexual tension in Kendal’s interest in Merrick, whereas the film imagines extended episodes in which a corrupt hospital porter (played by Michael Elphick) is being paid by pub drinkers to let them come and gawp at the terrified patient. At the time, I remember thinking that Treves’ rescuing of Merrick was like Nicholas Nickleby stepping in to prevent Smike being beaten in the legendary Royal Shakespeare Company stage adaptation in 1979.
Lynch’s film was celebrated and spoofed in its time, not least in Richard Curtis’s comedy The Tall Guy, the plot of which featured a gobsmackingly tasteless musical version of The Elephant Man in which Jeff Goldblum took the lead. (Once you realise Lynch’s movie was produced by Mel Brooks, you can’t help thinking about his Young Frankenstein.) Nowadays, the context for its representation of disability has changed and the actor Adam Pearson, who has a similar condition to Merrick’s, has condemned the practice of “cripping up”.
It has to be said that Lynch’s Elephant Man, while not exactly sentimental, takes a determinedly un-alienated attitude to Merrick’s image: rational, compassionate and very different from his approach to what might be called body-nonconformity in Eraserhead in which the keynote is clearly one of horror. There is far more empathy in The Elephant Man, especially in the moving scene in which Treves brings Carr-Gomm to see Merrick for the first time – and poor Merrick is at first hardly able to speak and then astonishes both men by reciting the 23rd Psalm from memory. It is always moving later, when Merrick asks Treves: “Can you cure me?” and, on getting a candid reply, says quietly: “I thought not …”
Lynch’s depiction of Victorian London is strong, because it is not fetishised or Hollywood-ised in the usual way but simply uses existing city locations (which in 1980 were still a very good match). And Lynch, with his editor Anne V Coates, subverts the usual narrative rhythm by ending a scene on a line or moment that might normally be considered a climactic point – giving the proceedings a persistent dream logic. It is while Merrick is being exhibited on the European tour that Lynch explores the idea of something other than ordinary sympathy for him, showing us him in Tod Browning-esque relationship with other circus folk and approaching a mysterious epiphany about the universe unavailable, perhaps, to other people. The two aspects of this approach may not be entirely resolved, but it is an absorbing and satisfying drama, and Hurt’s Merrick is very powerful.
• The Elephant Man is in UK cinemas on 13 March.
Source: The Guardian