The time is 1931 and the nation is heavy under the weight of the Depression. After the tragic deaths of his parents, a young veterinary student abruptly abandons his studies and takes to the rails. By chance, he boards a passing circus train and immediately finds himself in a world he could never have imagined.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook
Written By: Richard LaGravenese (screenplay), Sara Gruen (novel)
Directed By: Francis Lawrence
I am generally not one for the film adaptations of best-selling novels and I am certainly not the expected person who would make the trek to see a romance film of any kind. But there was something alluring about Francis Lawrence’s newest picture that pulled me into the theater, it’s haunting siren’s song drawing me hypnotically to the local cineplex. And unlike the sailors of ancient myth, I found myself floored by the incredible and imaginative production that I experienced.
It must be said, that for anyone who has read the novel by Sara Gruen, you will not be disappointed by this film. Lawrence, usually a mainstay in sci-fi and supernatural realms, deftly combines a dreamlike elegance with the gritty reality that was the post-WWI circus circuit. His dextrous choreography with humans and animals alike is subtle in its brilliance, often leaving the viewer so completely engrossed in the narrative that you silently forget that you’re watching a film. A mark of true achievement in this reviewer’s eyes.
The highest marks go to three of the films four leads for their enrapturing performances. Reese Witherspoon, as audiences have truly come to expect, is unerringly remarkable as Marlena, the beautiful Star of the Show and wife to it’s owner.
Subtle, embracing, alluring, and charming, I do believe that there is nothing this woman cannot do. An actress devoted to her craft, Reese trained incredibly hard to ensure she could perform the majority of her stunts herself and as anyone familiar with the horse and elephant acts that take place under the Big Top will be most impressed. Hat’s off to the divine Ms. Witherspoon who once again has managed to captivate audiences with an ease that this actor knows is anything but.
Christophe Waltz turns in some of his best work as the vile, pugnacious, and ultimately desperate and cowardly circus owner August. Filled with an energetic pathos, even the moments of joy and prosperity for the circus are pockmarked by an eerie feeling that August could explode in a violent rage at any moment. But instead of a villain composed merely of hate and fear, Waltz brings to life the man behind the failings. He is human, he is deeply flawed, scared, and pitiable. He is the whole of the antagonist in every facet and he captures it brilliantly.
And great praise goes to the newest addition to the circus, Rosie the Elephant. Brought on board as the newest draw, Rosie captivates the way any animal can. It is the natural intelligence, honesty, and innocence of an animal that truly touches the heart and Rosie accomplishes this in spades. While credit must be given to the trainers and the director for capturing the animal effectively and in such a way as to draw emotion from the audience, there is an incredible presence and wisdom that a pachyderm carries naturally and that alone sets this remarkable animal apart.
And lastly, a mention must be given to the denizens of the circus themselves. From the midget clown Kinko to the Fat Lady to Camel to the hardened Rousties, the childlike wonder of the circus is recreated and each plays their own significant part in its build. A circus is nothing without the personalities that define it and the ensemble brings every ounce of it to glorious life.
Of course, I must address the final lead, the storyteller himself, played in old age by the legendary Hal Holbrook, whose younger image is portrayed by Twilight-heartthrob Robert Pattinson. While I have always been (and always will be) a staunch advocate of hiring talent over looks, Pattinson performs admirably for his ability. In the novel, Jacob is a traumatized and lost young man who finds the liferaft of love in the arms of Marlena. But traumatized and lost should not equate to a void of affectation and personality. While this character aspect can be accepted to a degree, Pattinson, while capable at lighter and more comedic times, often felt as though he were straining to accomplish his more dramatically intensive goals.
I am happy to say that Mr. Pattinson has somewhat improved since his “breakout” role, but he still has a long way to go.
Acting– Reese, Christophe, Rosie, and the circus are sublime in their portrayals, truly bringing the circus days of old to life, not to mention creating a perfect safety net for the improved but still rather wooden Pattinson.
Direction– Finely crafted and executed by the most unexpected of directors, Francis Lawrence exceeds all expectations and even manages to coax a performance out of Robert Pattinson.
Writing– An excellent novel adaptation and while some moments that were enthralling in the book are lost in the translation (Pink Lemonade, anyone?), they do nothing to impede the dreamlike narrative of love under the Big Top.
Sound– Languid and subtle, the scoring is a combination of circus style and ethereal dreamscape. While the music accompanies the scenes rather well, it’s not truly something you’ll remember.
Visuals– Spectacular visuals of the circus and notably the menagerie contained therein are lovingly captured. While the terrific climax did show some signs of dated effects they are easily forgivable and too brief to quibble over.
Water for Elephants, especially for those who have already traveled in the footsteps of young Jacob before, will enchant, excite, and captivate. Even with a lack of surprises (as the usual romantic film formula remains in play here) the performances of its actors draw you in and take you back to a time of childlike wonder and awe, as those magnificent specters of entertainment dazzled you with the spectacle of the circus and then quietly disapated into the night as quickly as they arrived, their mystique and power having changed and inspired you forever.
I give Water for Elephants a 9.5 out of 10.