In 19th Century London, the hideously deformed John Merrick (Hurt) – AKA “the elephant man” – lives as a sideshow freak. Rescued by the kindly Dr. Treves (Hopkins) and introduced to high society, Merrick attempts to regain some of the dignity he lost during his years as a deformed circus act, but it soon becomes clear that he’s merely swapped one life as a freakshow for another…
Telling the tragic true story of Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man is commonly cited as one of the saddest films ever made – and with good reason. Tender, poignant and undeniably moving, it was the second feature from surrealist filmmaker David Lynch, with ‘producer’ Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks) hand-picking him after seeing his difficult, perplexing and, quite frankly, bonkers feature debut Eraserhead.
Happily though, The Elephant Man is a much more accessible experience, and not nearly as surreal or strange as the majority of Lynch’s work. As his first studio picture, arthouse purists complained that he’d already sold out, yet there’s still plenty of Lynchian tropes on display. From the obvious body horror to the piercing sound design, from the portrait of a lonely outsider freak to the industrialised, monochromatic rendering of Victorian London. John Hurt, unrecognisable under some truly impressive make-up, is magnificent as the titular figure, as is a younger Anthony Hopkins (in his Richard Burton phase) as the intense yet kindly doctor. Elsewhere, Michael Elphick pops up as a villain and a very young Dexter Fletcher makes an appearance.
Tender, poignant and undeniably moving, The Elephant Man is commonly cited as one of the saddest films ever made – and with good reason. Oh, and it’s much less surreal and bonkers than David Lynch’s usual fare.