David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) is a modern movie filmed in the style of a classic. There are a few David Lynch touches where you can see that the man could not be effectively restrained from being the kind of expressionist we’ve come to expect, but the vast majority of the film is classical. I have often thought that certain films could be greatly improved simply by upgrading the technology. Much of the time, older films require complete overhauls to translate the work into modern standards in editing or acting style, but others just needed a lighter camera to liberate the director from the cumbersome machines that dictated that a shot be static and strictly indoors. What you keep, as Lynch kept in The Elephant Man, is the high contrast black and white (Freddie Francis) that provides that terrific mood.
Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) is a young doctor looking to make a name for himself. He journeys to a local freak show and discovers a man so disfigured that the local police have to shut down the show. Bytes (Freddie Jones), the proprietor of the show, allows Treves back stage to see this Elephant Man (John Hurt). Treves has the man transported to his hospital where he is examined by Treves and displayed to the medical community. When the Elephant Man is returned to the carnival, Bytes beats him severely and Treves is called upon to return and treat him. When Treves gets the man back to the hospital, he does whatever he can to keep him out of Bytes’s clutches. In the attempt, what Treves discovers is that the man, named John Merrick, is a thoughtful man capable of speech and thought and feeling.
Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, and Lynch wrote a very fine screenplay. What I hoped for was something similar to Equus (1977) and that is roughly what I got. The dialogue is less theatrical, but it is full of meaning and sensitivity. It is rather amazing how quickly Lynch was able to make Merrick a sympathetic character. All that it really took was a little bit of speech and I was quite harshly judging those who screamed at the sight of him. Much credit is due to John Hurt who plays the role beautifully. I didn’t notice a single moment where he cheated the character. Hopkins’s role is investigated with perhaps less vigor than one might expect of a modern film. But in very little time, it is clear that it is Merrick’s story that we are seeing and not Treves’s.
I found The Elephant Man entirely engrossing and satisfied on every count. The story was uplifting and dramatic and the acting was terrific (I didn’t mention the great performances by Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud). Well worth adding to your collection at home.