The Elephant Man (1980)

(On Cable TV, October 2017) My rule of thumb for David Lynch is that the more conventional his movies get, the better I like them. (The Straight Story and The Elephant Man would suggest that some sentimentality also helps, but Dune doesn’t really fit in that pattern.)  In any case, The Elephant Man is only grotesque on the surface, as a horribly deformed man (John Hurt, justifiably unrecognizable) is taken in by a benevolent doctor (a very young Anthony Hopkins, looking unusually dashing with a black beard), revealing his sensitive nature to Victorian-era London even as some people can’t see past appearances. There is a strong sympathy here for the marginal protagonist of the story, and it’s that sympathy that carries through the movie even as the lead character gets kidnapped, abused, insulted and wounded. It ends beautifully (if tragically), which wasn’t a given considering the dour nature of the humans in the story. The Elephant Man isn’t perfect: there’s quite a bit of manipulation in hiding the protagonist’s true nature for a long time before the end of the first act, and it’s best not to dig too deep in the real events that inspired the film. On the other hand, it’s a more effective Lynch film because it is grounded more strongly in reality, which doesn’t preclude some pointed questions about human nature and motives. The re-creation of Victorian London is evocative, and the direction has its moments of interest. While I’m not going to pretend that I liked the film more than I did, it does come as an antidote to my recent viewing of Eraserhead, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

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