So often the king of surrealism, The Elephant Man has always been one of David Lynch’s more restrained features. That’s not to say that there aren’t the usual flourishes. The opening splice of wild elephants and a terrified human face imparts the tone of what is to come. But above all, this is a deeply human film, one replete with intensely emotive moments. The profoundly beguiled look on the face of Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) the first time he sees the man captures both the fear and awe inspired by this entirely novel person.
The man, of course, was Joseph Merrick (though referred to as John), a Victorian who lived with severe deformities across his body. Brought to life by a melancholy John Hurt, there is a desperate sadness to the Elephant Man’s being.Though saved from the humiliation of a carnival and the constant abuse of Mr Bytes (a villainous Freddie Jones), there is still a concern that Treves, despite being “a man of science,” is using Merrick in a similarly voyeuristic way. He may be saving him from the fear or laughter of a paying crowd, but he’s still holding Merrick up as a scientific specimen, an anomaly as opposed to a human being.
In one of the film’s most rousing moments, Merrick gains his voice for the first time when recounting Psalm 23 to Treves and a sceptical Francis (John Gielgud), the hospital governor who doesn’t wish for him to stay. But this moment just reinforces the point that Merrick is continually having to prove his own humanity.
He is also deeply curious about what normal life is. When invited to Treves’ home for tea, Merrick is overcome by emotion. He is also, tellingly, spellbound by the normality of the Treves’ existence. He pores of photos of the couples’ secure family, undeniably craving a similarly settled way of life. Meanwhile, when he is introduced to Shakespeare by the actress Madge Kendall (Anne Bancroft) he appears similarly entranced by the worlds which the words are able to conjure.
But even kindness towards Merrick comes at a cost. Though nominally accepted by High Society, he’s once again a curiosity piece as opposed to a friend. Among the film’s many strengths is how it openly compares the ways in which Merrick is dehumanised, whether that’s through jeers or smiles. Though Treves – embodied by Hopkins’ mastery of restraint and rage – comes to realise this, it comes almost too late.
Towards the film’s close, the screaming trains at Liverpool Street Station provide a harrowing soundtrack to a story which is at times unrelentingly bleak. Yet it is only in this moment that Merrick feels able to claim his own humanity. It’s a humanity which allows him to go to the theatre, become an active part in society and relax, finally, into a world which is more fairytale than nightmare. He was always more man than elephant, even if everyone else was unable to see it.