THE film The Elephant Man (Cert. 12A) abounds with Christian sensibilities. This 40th-anniversary re-release is due on Monday in a digital, DVD, BD & 4K UHD Collector’s Edition. John Hurt (a son of the vicarage) plays the title role with dignity and pathos.
John Merrick’s congenital deformities resemble an elephant’s hide. The surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescues him for research from a Victorian freak-show. Friendship develops. A full half-hour elapses before we get sight of John. It allows time to see him through Treves’s eyes as, in Walt Whitman’s’ phrase “a man divine as myself”.
Hopkins’s sensitive performance sharply contrasts with sensation-seeking fairground crowds. When John, loving the Book of Common Prayer, recites the 23rd Psalm, hospital staff and high society realise that they are in the presence of love. Michael Elpick’s porter, replete with villainous bombast, typifies working-class unconcern. The more chilling, insidious face of evil belongs to Freddie Jones as Bytes, Merrick’s “proprietor”. Yet, after all Merrick’s maltreatment, he is able to say: “My life is full, because I know that I am loved.”
His growth in wisdom and moral stature transforms ugliness into something beautiful for God. When model-making becomes an option, it is a cathedral that he creates. The original — for this film is based on a true story — is in the Royal London Hospital Museum.
Though this is a more straightforward film than Eraserhead and Twin Peaks, the director, David Lynch, inserts puzzling effects, such as machinery noises. It is Freddie Francis’s glorious black-and-white cinematography, however, that triumphs. This is a work, though occasionally mawkish, replete with heroic virtue. It is a fitting companion for Holy Week.