Cult Movie: Deep compassion lies at the core of David Lynch's The Elephant Man

John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man
Ralph McLean

The Elephant Man

DAVID Lynch has enjoyed a career packed with more memorable movie moments than most. The Elephant Man, made in 1980 and freshly reissued on Blu-ray by Studiocanal, might just be the director's greatest achievement, though.

Like much of the man's finest work, it is visually stunning and artistically satisfying but it's the heart of the film that makes it truly special. The Elephant Man is a gaping wound of raw emotion, a beautifully realised account of the true life story of Joseph Merrick, a severely deformed man trying to make his way through the ruthless world of Victorian London in the 1880s.

Shot in crisp black and white by cinematographer supreme and helmer of many a fine old horror film Freddie Francis, it captures the bleakness of the era in which it is set with real style and panache.

Much more than a straight historical biopic, though, this is a study into humanity itself in both its greatest and most grim manifestations. John Hurt is simply astounding under a ton of prosthetics in the central role, renamed here as John rather than Joseph Merrick, and his performance as the tormented and abused human being trying to find his place in Victorian society is a remarkable mix of physicality and emotion.

The alternate versions of humanity he is exposed to come from the people he meets as his story unfolds. There is the evil Bytes (portrayed by the great Freddie Jones in a career best performance) who exploits the sensitive Merrick for his own ends as a circus freak to be laughed and jeered at. Against that Anthony Hopkins turns in an unusually reserved performance as his trusty physician, Frederick Treves, who tries to guide his disfigured but distinguished charge towards some sort of peace and acceptance in society.

As Merrick's journey unfolds Lynch cleverly peoples this fusty, cluttered world with familiar faces like John Gielgud and Anne Bancroft, giving the film a gravitas it needs to carry its heavy subject matter. They ground a film that could easily have floated off into the realms of fantasy.

Unlikely as it may seem, it was executive producer Mel Brooks who handed the film to Lynch after witnessing the director's deeply personal and genuinely terrifying debut feature Eraserhead. Brooks reckoned Lynch had the skill to take The Elephant Man to places other directors could only dream of. He was right and Lynch delivers a strange, individualistic vision that once seen is never forgotten.

This is much more than an uneasy dream-like slice of cinematic time travel, though. There's a deep compassion for the subject matter and a profoundly emotional core that remains unequalled in the director's work.

Tightly wound and deeply affecting, it remains a film with a special power to pull out all kinds of emotions from viewers even today. At times shocking, disturbing and anger inducing when you witness the levels of degradation foisted upon the gentle soul of Merrick, it is essentially a powerful and deeply moving film about the human condition that repays repeat viewings.

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