Slightly biased as its one of my favourite films, but this is a truly beautiful movie that I've wanted to revisit for some time- more so having recently revisited Schindler's List (which could be seen as a thematic companion piece to this). It's strange to think that David Lynch, the purveyor of such bizarre works as Eraserhead and Lost Highway, could produce such an emotional biopic. Yet it proves to be a perfect fit: his style prevents the film descending too far into mawkishness and sentimentality. Even so, it's one of his most conventional films.
Despite the softer narrative approach, a lot of Lynch's signature has carried over from Eraserhead; the use of surreal imagery (especially when depicting the fate of his mother) and the use of percussive industrial noise and squalid images pervades the film. Hideous chimney stacks, sweating gas pipes, cold brickwork and mountains of coal litter the streets. I think he uses the heavy industrialisation to illustrate Victorian society's indifference to humanity. As Treves' observes whilst tending an industrial accident victim; "you can't reason with machines".
And yet it's humanism that defines the film, more so than the cruelty. Treves' isn't the only kindly figure but the embodiment of a side of humanity that gets beautifully showcased via a host of fantastic characters; John Gielgud's elegantly noble hospital Governor, Anne Bancroft's graceful and sophisticated Mrs Kendal, Hannah Gordon's gentle and beautiful Ann, and Wendy Hiller's matronly Mrs Mothershead (a battleaxe with a heart of gold). Those two jostle for my favourite supporting characters. And of course Anthony Hopkins' mildly ambitious yet overwhelmingly humane Fredrick Treves- one of my all-time favourite performances in any film. The Victorian sensibilities or the era force the actors to to supress their emotions, almost like Vulcans, yet its the moments when they bleed through that feel the most intense. My favourite example (and scene) is Merrick and Ann discussing his mother. I heard a rumour that Hannah Gordon's tears were genuine (mine certainly were). Dear god. It's also a progressive film in that all the female characters are portrayed as formidable yet altruistic people, despite the male-dominated era.
Joseph Merrick (here referred to as 'John') is played by an unrecognisable John Hurt and its a performance that won him a Bafta, and an Oscar nomination. His arc from freak-show exhibit and beaten dog to Victorian gentleman is dignified and tragic; while his 'rescuer' Dr Treves comes to the realisation that, with the best of intentions, he may be exploiting Merrick as much as any of his past tormentors. These include the fantastic Freddie Jones, and a scummy turn by Michael Elphick; their actions lead to some of the films most dramatic scenes. But it's the quiet, introspective moments that I find most involving. Merrick's visit to the theatre, where he achieves his utmost fulfillment and acceptance, is tempered by Treves' melancholy realisation of what awaits. Hopkins doesn't take his eyes off Merrick throughout the performance (as a side note, I also noticed on this watch Mrs Mothershead giving evils to the Princess of Wales- a neat little quirk I'd never noticed before hinting at her protectiveness towards John.
I have to wonder, if this came out today (and from a different director) would it be held in such high esteem? or would we consider it another manipulative, syrupy Oscat bait movie? I don't think so, few films feel as honest or genuinely upsetting as this. In summary; powerful performances, engrossing and morally-charged dialogue, rich characters and a profoundly sad story; directed with artistry and sobriety. For me its a masterpiece.