I am not being hyperbolic when I describe David Lynch’s narrative handling of The Elephant Man to be peerless. If I described it a splendid, there would be other films and narrative handling to compare with it. But this film is so singular–John Hurt as an exceptionally disfigured man in Victoria England, with Lynch concentrating on the medical and industrial revolution, the society, the ambitions of Hurt’s doctor (Anthony Hopkins) and then Hurt’s character himself. And Lynch does it all in grand Hollywood fashion. The Elephant Man’s greatest secret is its openness and accessibility.
Why wouldn’t the film be accessible? Because of Hurt’s disfigurements. Lynch doesn’t give the audience an easy path into the film and the visuals. In fact, he makes it worse with he and cinematographer Freddie Francis’s black and white photography, full of nightmarish images to get the audience thinking on their own. Instead, Lynch gives the audience a deadline. If the audience can’t get over Hurt in the makeup by point X, Lynch isn’t slowing the film for them. At what point is that deadline? Long before Hurt becomes the protagonist (with Hopkins giving it away) but sometime after Hopkins and Hurt meet. Lynch is careful with the emotions in Elephant Man. By the halfway point, the tragedy becomes intolerable; yet the film pushes on, through the intolerable, through the tragedy. Because the film’s openness and accessibility? It’s because of its humanism. Lynch, Francis, composer John Morris–they terrify the audience with the film’s visuals. Along with Anne V. Coates’s sublime edits, The Elephant Man is in a constant dreamlike state, yet undeniably real, which makes every moment even more affecting.
Francis’s black and white photography, the Victorian-era setting, Lynch’s magnificent Panavision composition–The Elephant Man looks epic. The black and white directly engages with the audience. Lynch already has them imagining the color in this historical reality, what else can he get them to imagine. But why are they supposed to imagine? Lynch asks the audience to imagine, to wonder, but he controls the question. He asks the question, steps back, presents the result. Peerless.
The film has wonderful performances. Hurt, on his journey to be the film’s protagonist instead of subject, does some truly phenomenal work. The script–from Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren and Lynch–executes the transfer of protagonist over a somewhat lengthy sequence between the second and third act–just at the right time for Hurt. He’s ready (as his character’s narrative involves being subdued for Hopkins and the rest of the world, but eventually finds confidence to assert himself). And Lynch gets all these moments done right. It’s an impossibly heavy story, told in an aggressive fashion. It’s why the story can work as a big (or at least it looks big) studio picture.
Hopkins is excellent too. His role doesn’t have many subtleties, but its handful are all more than Hurt gets. But Lynch isn’t interested in Hopkins as a protagonist. He’s fine as a narrator, perhaps, but–even before Hopkins loses the lead spot–Lynch clearly doesn’t want him getting in the way of the film.
Freddie Jones is great as the villain. John Gielgud is great as Hopkins’s boss. Wendy Hiller is great. Anne Bancroft. Michael Elphick. Hannah Gordon has a very small part as Hopkins’s wife, but she’s great. All great.
There’s no way to improve The Elephant Man. It’s perfect.