Lynch's first 'director for hire' gig resulted in a rich and emotional experience filmed in glorious b&w. Well edited and constructed with impeccable cinematography by the great Freddie Francis. Casting was excellent especially John Hurt, Freddie Jones and Wendy Hiller. The makeup design was flawless and helped lead the academy to making it a category on to itself...a year later.
An interesting stepping-stone for David Lynch, since it's part Lynch movie and part Oscar bait. Lynch manages some eerily beautiful images, and the dream sequences and industrial sound design are natural extensions of Eraserhead. But I can't deny that the film feels weighed down by the need for simplicity: as well-made as it is, it's also another biopic that's less interesting than the subject's Wikipedia page.
I was strangely fascinated by the Elephant Man's portrait of Oscar Wilde above his mantelpiece (even if this wasn't supposed to be Wilde, it showed a very striking resemblance to the writer). This would provide a very interesting reading of the film as an allegory on the notion of degeneration in Victorian society.
It's a great movie, but not a great Lynch movie. There are moments of genius, and Lynch's perfectly evokes the gaslight era, but it's easy to tell he had to be populist here. I would like to see what his own personal take would have been, because the material does suit his talents. John Hurt moved me to tears, though.
Beautifully photographed and well directed, despite a few Lynchian moments, you really wouldn't know that David Lynch made this movie. The Elephant Man is a great movie with wonderful performances. The final two shots of the movie say more about it than any of my rambling comments could.