257. The Elephant Man (GB/US 1980)

Director: David Lynch

Starring: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones, Hannah Gordon (hurrah!), Michael Elphick, Leslie Dunlop

Music: John Morris

Cinematography: Freddie Francis

Screenplay: Christoher de Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch

Make-Up Design: Chris Tucker

Bit Part: Pauline Quirke ('Second Whore'); Patricia Hodge ('Screaming Mum')

 In one line: Deformed man finds happiness and dignity in Victorian London

 

The severely deformed John Merrick is being exhibited and abused in a travelling freak show by the brutish Bytes. He is recued by eminent British surgeon Frederick Treves and treated with kindness. He is introduced to London society and finds happiness. Bytes kidnaps Merrick, but Merrick escapes and returns to Treves's hospital. Merrick's one wish is to sleep lying down like an ordinary human being, but he knows that if he does so, he will die.....

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  There are no great 'biopics'. Some are ok, but most are terrrible truncated melodramas for thickoes. Lynchy's Elephant Man is not really a biopic, as such, but an 'imagining' of Joseph Merrick's life.

Lynch draws on a lot of the imagery and textures of his own Eraserhead to create a compelling and beautiful film. Chris Tucker's make-up designs are extraordinary (can't say that word without thinking of Billy Connolly - who's still a bastard as far as I'm concerned) and still very disturbing some 28 years after the film was released. Francis's photography perfectly realises Lynch's realistic and dream visions of Victorian England and there are good performances from Hurt and Hopkins in the lead roles.

The best bits (as usual) are the incidentals. Freddie Jones is tremendous as ever (despite chewing the scenery at times), and Elphick is excellent as an Michael Eplhick-like character.  Best of all, though, is the goddess-like Hannah Gordon. Why there was no My Wife Next Door - the Motion Picture is beyond me.

Lynch combines the art-house sensibilities found in Eraserhead to a strong narrative and ends up with an inspired film. The negative reaction to his next film Dune would stall his career for a few years, but the trademark (and pretty much uncopyable) 'Lynchian' sounds and images which would be realised in Blue Velvet can be traced in this much more mainstream and linear film.

Although the stark and beautiful images of The Elephant man have infiltrated our collective consciousness, the film itself does not enjoy the same prestigious reputation of many of Lynch's other films. Perhaps because it is, after all, a biopic.