The movie that put David Lynch into the mainstream!
Screenplay By: Eric Bergren, Christopher De Vore & David Lynch
Directed By: David Lynch
I was left rather befuddled as to what to make of The Elephant Man. In some ways it was a very unique and well put together picture. In other areas it was too sentimental and too confusing. That makes The Elephant Man an uneven picture and that’s what it is. It is helmed by David Lynch and it is honestly a film right up his alley, with the macabre aspects and the surreal nature of the story. Unfortunately for the most part Lynch opted for a more restrained story and certainly did as such in his direction, so even in that regard it was an uneven directorial performance from Lynch.
When The Elephant Man was at full stride it was handling the smaller issues. The beginning of the film where you can’t get a clear picture of Merrick creates an air of mystery and suspense over his eventual up close and personal unveiling. There was also a little thing that John Hurt and Lynch did with Merrick where his eyes were almost perpetually closed when he was with Bytes, but when he finally opened up to Treves his eyes were open, as if he could finally see the world for once. Where The Elephant Man most impressed me was in its use, at times, of Merrick to show that he isn’t the freak, but the parts of humanity that can’t accept him are the real freaks.
However, the scene that most showed the above point was also the time where I began to realize the film wasn’t quite up to snuff. We know that the Night Porter has been bringing visitors to Merrick’s room for some time, yet they play that visit as if it was his first and that Merrick is completely surprised by the events. The stealing of the picture especially rings false, as does the young man who rats on the Night Porter. The reason he is false, is because he was clearly played out to be the young boy with Bytes when Treves first discovers Merrick. Yet, a few scenes later when Merrick is back with Bytes in continental Europe we see the young boy with Bytes again and he isn’t the boy turned man from the pub.
In the area of sentimentality Lynch also goes overboard at times, not playing Merrick as the normal human he should be viewed as, but rather as a beacon of light, as a courageous warrior of sorts. I can’t claim to have ever worked with anyone as disfigured and cut off from society as Merrick. But, in my years as a volunteer for various youth organizations I have worked with countless young adults/children with mental, and some physical, issues that prevent them from feeling as if they are a part of society. None of the kids I worked with wanted to be viewed as courageous or sentimental heroes, they want to be the same as us, no strings attached. This is where Lynch missteps the most, because he wants to convey Merrick not as a human like you or I, but as something special and by doing so he unnecessarily puts the focus on his deformity.
The above being said I did quite like the black and white aesthetic of The Elephant Man, while Lynch also did a tremendous job with the meshing of classical Victorian dressings and the encroaching industrial age. John Hurt was engaging as Merrick, because regardless of the sentimentality infused into the role he was very believable as Merrick, he wasn’t a man in a suit, he was a deformed man. Anthony Hopkins was given some dialogue that was a bit too on the nose, especially his revelation of turning the hospital into a carnival, but he made the best of it and brought an aloofness to his character that was appreciated.
All in all The Elephant Man is a film that wanted to be something special and so it treated its subject matter as something special. A less sentimental view would have served the movie better, but there is still plenty to like in Hurt’s performance, the aesthetics present, and in the first mystery portion of the film. But, as I said The Elephant Man is an uneven picture and one that I suspect will split opinions down the middle.