There’s a tension to The Elephant Man that only resolves itself occasionally, but when it does the movie is a thing of strange beauty.
You could say that the film’s subject, Joseph Merrick, had a strange beauty of his own. Here called John Merrick and played by John Hurt, the “elephant man” is a tormented soul we first meet at a carnival freak show in Victorian-era London. Horribly deformed and barely able to speak, it isn’t until a surgeon (Anthony Hopkins) rescues him that we learn a thoughtful, intelligent human being resides within. But is life as a professional medical specimen all that different from the carnival tour?
The tension here is between the surrealist impulses of the director, David Lynch, and the movie’s conventional, period-piece ambitions. Written by Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren (Lynch would eventually have a hand in the screenplay), The Elephant Man was clearly conceived as the Oscar drama it turned out to be. (The movie received eight nominations.) Lynch honored that intent when he came on board – the movie’s humanist message and moral hand-wringing comes through loud and clear – while also going off on his own imaginative tangents, some of which are more successful than others (a spacey coda nearly undoes what had been a powerfully elegiac ending).
Is life as a professional medical specimen all that different from the carnival tour?
The Elephant Man is at its best when the story and period trappings serve Lynch’s vision, and vice versa. An eerie prologue, featuring pictures of a thrashing woman superimposed over the slow-motion movements of a violent elephant, is at once thoroughly modern in its implied violence and 19th-century in its aesthetic. Shot in black and white, as the entire film is, it could conceivably have appeared among the early films that would emerge near the end of the Victorian era. There’s also a nightmare sequence – which begins with the camera floating into the single eye hole on Merrick’s hood – that commingles the dehumanization Merrick faces with the mercilessness of the Industrial Revolution. If The Elephant Man often gives in to obviousness – “Am I a good man or am I a bad man?” Hopkins’ surgeon actually asks during a literal dark night of the soul – at least Lynch is on hand to occasionally lead it to the sort of places literal minds should fear.