The place is Victorian London, and surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) is intrigued by a carnival, specifically the exhibit known as The Elephant Man (John Hurt). There is controversy as Treves discovers when he makes his way around the sideshows to reach it, and the police are informing the deformed man's owner, Mr Bytes (Freddie Jones) that they are closing him down because he is offending public decency by putting such an unfortunate on display. And besides, he is frightening people. Treves is ushered away with the other sightseers, but he makes up his mind to track down this man...
Based on a true story and drawn from the actual records of Sir Frederick Treves, The Elephant Man made as many waves as a film as the real person did a hundred years before, and soon there was nobody who did not know who he was, although they frequently got his name wrong: he was not called John Merrick as he was here, but Joseph Merrick. It was a curious for the director of Eraserhead, David Lynch, to be handed the reins of a costume drama, but that's what producer Mel Brooks did after being hugely impressed with that cult movie.
It turned out to be an inspired decision, and Lynch managed to walk the tightrope between his own idiosyncrasies (this is very much recognisably in his style, with the oppressive sound design alone marked out as his work) and telling a story which stayed faithful to the tragedy and emotion of the events; it was difficult to credit that Lynch could make what was effectively a tearjerking weepie, but that's what he did. The filmmakers could have rendered a tale in exploitative terms, yet this was presented with immense sensitivity, and recognises that the overriding theme is how its main character could possibly find any dignity given the circumstances he was landed in.
When Treves does meet Merrick, he is overhwhelmed with compassion for the man, and avers to first show him to his medical peers, then improve his quality of life. However, Bytes is extremely reluctant to let his meal ticket go without a fight, though must relent when he beats Merrick severely in a drunken rage and allows the doctor to look after him - for a while, he believes. At first, nurses scream when they see Merrick and even the head of the hospital, Carr Gomm (John Gielgud), regards him as an imbecile who would be better off at a care home for hopeless cases. But then, Treves manages to prove that his charge may be physically disabled, but mentally he is not so disadvantaged.
Both Hurt and Hopkins are very moving in their roles, with Merrick amazed that anyone can even show him the slightest politeness never mind actually treat him with kindness, and grateful beyond words that this should be so. Yet Treves begins to suffer from guilt when he realises that he may not be any better than Bytes as he allows high society to visit Merrick - is this simply a better class of freak show he has set up? The Night Porter (Michael Elphick) makes money from allowing the lower classes to see and jeer at The Elephant Man during the nights, and this gives Bytes the opportunity he needs to kidnap him and take him to Europe in the carnival. Crucially, this illustrates that it was Treves' belief that he should improve Merrick's circumstances that sets him above the likes of Bytes, and he was not as selfish as he thought. As a study in how treating others with sympathy and respect is not as easy as we would like, but how imperative it is that we do, this film was rarely bettered. Music by John Morris.
One-of-a-kind American writer-director and artist. His low budget debut Eraserhead set the trends for his work: surreal, unnerving but with a unique sense of humour. After Mel Brooks offered him The Elephant Man, Dino De Laurentiis gave Lynch Dune to direct, but it was an unhappy experience for him.
Luckily, despite the failure of Dune, De Laurentiis was prepared to produce Lynch's script for Blue Velvet, which has since become regarded as a classic. He moved into television with Twin Peaks and On the Air, but it was with film that he was most comfortable: Cannes winner Wild at Heart, prequel/sequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, plot-twisting Lost Highway, the out of character but sweet-natured The Straight Story, the mysterious Mulholland Drive and the rambling, willfully obscure Inland Empire. His return to directing after a long gap with the revival of Twin Peaks on television was regarded as a triumph.