About the hideously deformed John Merricks in late Victorian London. A doctor (Anthony Hopkins) rescues him from a freak’s circus and looks after him in hospital. It’s about Merrick’s star status in Victorian society after being an exhibit for medical science. He is abducted by drunks and low lifes then he is recaptured by his circus owner. He escapes from this into Hopkin’s care.
This is a David Lynch film (made in 1980) and it continues the style of Eraserhead, a film in black and white like the Elephant Man, in which an odd looking guy dreams he’s pregnant and is then devoured. Lynch at this period, is obviously interested, in a paranoid and puritanical way, with the potential of the body for prudish alienation, decaying in disgustingness. His view of John Merrick (who was really called Joseph Merrick) seems as dubiously voyeuristic and as pornographically intrusive as the horrified viewers of his deformity at the time. Lynch then seems to draw back and hold Merrick’s condition as a mirror to the equally horrific moral and psychological condition of the Victorian world with it’s prurient self repression, it’s violent sentimentality and its fear of self exposure. Victorian funereal obsession with ‘oddity’, death, and suffering is graphically illustrated in stygian tones, it puts you in mind of Blake’s lithographs. It has a mythological power in the smoking mills and the human bodies in the factory tortured by industry. John Hurt under all that latex, puts on a great performance. I only occasionally got distracted and thought of a Star Trek ‘Varengian’ with a melted head. Lynch’s possible self-dislike seems to spare no-one else. Anthony Hopkins is the doctor who rescues Merrick but Hopkins is more about maudlin self love than self effacing goodness, his ambivalence over his motivations offers only a possible redemption. He is the hero of unctuousness we have sanctified in our own era’s humourless and paranoid therapy culture. It makes you long for the inept gaffes of a Ricky Gervaise. Initially anyway, this doctor exploits Merrick as much as Merrick’s circus owner, played by Freddie Jones as an avaricious, exploitative brute. Actually this is myth, the real Merrick was never owned by a circus sadist, it seems he was a shrewd businessman who made money out of his condition. Hopkins is a surgeon, out to make a name for himself so he exploits Merrick for his scientific self advancement. His academic audience might be more educated than that of the circus but there is still the gratified and horrified stare at Merrick. Furthermore, Hopkins ensures that ‘polite’ society comes to peer at this Victorian Quasimodo but of course, what they are really doing is admiring their capacity for sentimental condescension towards Merrick. Lynch leaves us in no doubt of this. They then congratulate their self-sanctifying attitudes in the tortuously self deceptive ways familiar in more benign forms of racism.
Anne Bancroft’s Lilly Langtryish actor, who patronizes Merrick, is hilariously lacking in self knowledge on this point. Lynch means us to find her superficial. Merrick is treated as an unfortunate ‘noble savage’ later abducted by the usual hackneyed caste of disreputables, cockney prostitutes, and pub crawling brutes. When Merrick ends up in the circus, Lynch reminds us of the role of spectacle in Victorian society and how Merrick is punished for the shame and embarrassment he causes in his audience, who become Heironymus Bosch monsters when they’re mobbing him. From Bergman through to Paul Newman’s 1976 Buffalo Bill film, the travelling circus seems an appropriate backdrop for an outsiders view of social sickness and so it is here Merrick’s fellow unfortunates release him from the circus cage and he finds his way back to Hopkins and his hospital.
The film haunts with dark and claustrophobic places like curtains drawn over guilty secrets in a dark room. A masterpiece.