Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Francis Lawrence
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider.
While it may not be the greatest show on earth, this blend of romance and circus drama is still a pretty good melodrama.
Based on the 2006 bestselling novel by Sara Gruen, and solidly adapted by veteran screenwriter Richard La Gravenese, Water For Elephants is set against the background of a circus, travelling around the eastern states of the US during the depression. It is 1931, and times are hard, even for circuses.
Twilight hunk Robert Pattinson gives a fairly decent performance as Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student who is forced to drop out of school following the death of his parents in a car crash. He joins the Benzini Brothers Circus, and his knowledge of animals enables him to land a full time job. He falls in love with Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the circus’s star attraction and wife of its tyrannical owner August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz, from Inglorious Basterds, etc).
Jacob and Marlena also work with the circus’ new star attraction, Rosie a performing elephant, and they bond over the animal, much to the jealousy of August who believes that brute force is the only way to tame and control the animal. This romantic triangle comes to a head with tragic consequences during a spectacular climax.
The main drama is book ended by the charming presence of Hal Holbrook, who plays the elderly Jacob, who wanders into a modern day circus and tells circus manager Charlie (Paul Schneider) his fascinating tale one of the greatest circus disasters in history.
The director is Francis Lawrence, a former director of music videos, who has also directed sci-fi/horror films like Constantine and I Am Legend. He eschews his usual reliance on CGI effects here, and does a great job of capturing the period detail. He presents the mystery and magic of the circus, but he also presents a detailed and unsentimental of life on the road with a circus. Water For Elephants also explores the darker side of life with the big top – animal cruelty, jealousy, and even the brutal practice of throwing unemployed circus performers from moving trains! The film also boasts some superb production values; Jacqueline West’s costume are impressive, and Rodrigo Preto’s camerawork is lush and evocative. The production design by veteran Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood, etc) brings a wonderful authenticity to this recreation of the circus, and we can almost smell the sawdust.
The performances are generally solid. Waltz makes the most of his complex, deeply flawed character and his contradictions, and delivers a wonderful blend of both the charming and loathsome. Pattinson also proves that he is capable of more depth and sensitivity than allowed by the constraints of the Twilight series, and his brooding presence suits his character here. And Witherspoon lights up the screen with her presence, but she also brings a steely quality to her performance.
However, there is a lack of real chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon that holds back the romantic subplot. But the human stars are comprehensively outshone by Tai the trained elephant who has appeared in films like Operation Dumbo Drop, etc.
Water For Elephants seems old fashioned and nicely captures the excitement of the circus, but one ultimately wishes that director Lawrence had Cecil B De Mille’s style and eye for big screen spectacle.