Merrick's maladies draw the attention of earnest Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins), who manuevers Merrick from Bytes and takes him to his London charity hospital, which is run by imperious John Gielgud and no-nonsense nurse Wendy Hiller. The educated and intelligent Merrick soon becomes a celebrity among the upper class.
But Merrick's problems are not over. He is exploited by night watchman Michael Elphick, and the malevolent Bytes returns to kidnap him.
How others will see it. Although hardly a box office blockbuster, The Elephant Man was a commercial success, and a favorite at the major film festivals. It received eight Oscar nominations, but was shut out in the year of Raging Bull and Ordinary People. The movie did better at BAFTA, where it won three of seven nods, including two majors, Best Film and Best Actor (Hurt).
David Lynch has since become a popular "cult" director, while Hopkins reached iconic status with The Silence of the Lambs. Today at imdb.com, The Elephant Man has a huge 192K user votes and a spectacularly high 8.2 (out of 10) user rating. The user reviews demonstrate that viewers applaud the vindications of the heroes, the comeuppances of the villains, and the triumph of soul over body.
How I felt about it. David Lynch's message is obvious, and even explicitly stated in one of Hopkins' lines. The monster isn't kindly John Merrick but those who exploit or mock him. Per Lynch, it is our character, or lack of it, that makes us beautiful or monstrous.
Try telling that to the runway models of Paris. Looks will take you farther than character, and there's no use in pretending otherwise.
To make his point, which everyone approves of but few actually believe, Lynch makes Merrick the nicest, meekest, and modest of all men, aside from his famous pronouncement about being a man instead of an animal.
To further emphasize matters, Merrick's manager is depicted as a drunken abuser who beats, kidnaps, and cages the hapless Merrick. The the night watchman is nearly as deplorable. Their real-life historical counterparts were much more mundane. Merrick's manager was his business partner who gave Merrick a 50% cut, and was not accused of cruelty.
To continue the pattern, Dr. Treves is practically a saint here. This leaves the head nurse (Wendy Hiller) as the most mixed character, stern and officious but ultimately regarded as essential to the keep the hospital running smoothly.
I do like the black and white cinematography. The cast is wonderful, beginning with John Hurt, who before Daniel Day Lewis' time was always the first choice to play difficult eccentrics. And the movie is David Lynch's best. His sympathy toward the lead characters (Dr. Treves and John Merrick) always shines through.