Probably David Lynch’s most completely accessible film, The Elephant Man (1980) often gets more than its fair share of abuse for both not being the film version of the stage show and for playing fast and loose with the truth for dramatic purposes. The latter likely wouldn’t matter if it didn’t result in the film’s tendency to topple over into cheap melodrama on a couple of occasions. Even that might matter less if the film’s “big scene”—in which a porter at the hospital where the title character is living turns him into a freak show for personal gain—wasn’t so clumsily handled. Lynch isn’t known for his ability to stage action, and this scene offers testimony as to why.
All the same, Lynch’s highly colored film on John (in reality Joseph) Merrick (John Hurt)—known as the Elephant Man due to his deformity—is a warmly human work of no little complexity in its insistence on probing the question of whether or not Merrick’s mentor, Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), mightn’t have inadvertently exploited Merrick before London society just as much as any freak show would have done. That Lynch takes the film a step further by simultaneously painting a nightmarish picture of England in the throes of the industrial revolution may be merely an atmospheric bonus, but it is a bonus.
Lynch very shrewdly places the viewer in a position where an attitude of moral superiority is impossible. He keeps Merrick out of our view for so long that we become no different from the patrons of the freak show, because we want a look at his freakishness, too, and keep being denied it. The payoff is everything it could be—we have to adjust ourselves to seeing the beauty and dignity of the man behind the deformity. The film boasts several emotional high points that would be shameless in their manipulation were it not for a sense of sincerity. Beautifully acted and photographed in absolutely gorgeous wide-screen black-and-white, the results are rarely less than stunning, despite the lapses into the melodramatic.