Film Review: ‘Water For Elephants’

The greatest show on earth?  Nah, but I found Water for Elephants to be an immensely enjoyable period film filled with decadent set pieces, gorgeous costumes, and a fascinating look at Depression-era Americana. The romance might be a tad tepid, but there is plenty to keep you entertained in this film adaptation of the popular novel by Sara Gruen.

If you haven’t read the book (I haven’t) don’t let the clunky title be a turnoff. Water for Elephants takes place in 1931, and tells the tale of Jacob Jakowski (Robert Pattinson), who has just completed his final year of Veterinary Science at the prestigious Cornell University. On the day of his final exams, Jacob learns that both of his parents died in a tragic car crash, and that they had mortgaged their house and belongings to pay his tuition.

He takes off with the shoes on his feet, the shirt on his back, and little else. Due to divine intervention or blind good luck, Jacob jumps onto a train that just happens to be housing an entire traveling circus.

His spirits are immediately lifted in the presence of the animals, and he quickly starts to acclimate to being a day laborer with the other misfits and train-jumpers, gladly mucking stalls and tending to the animals in exchange for a meal and hard floor to sleep upon. He becomes captivated by a luminous blond named Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) who performs a routine with the horses.

Eventually he comes face to face with August (Christoph Waltz), the cold and calculating owner of the traveling troupe (who happens to be Marlena’s husband), and convinces him that he may be of service as an official veterinarian for the Benzini Brothers Circus.

A huge elephant named Rosie is acquired by August in hopes of boosting flagging ticket sales and keeping the circus afloat. It falls upon Jacob to train the giant. Jacob’s gentle demeanor and compassion toward the animals is a sharp contrast to the whip-wielding ways of August, who doesn’t discriminate between man or beast when it comes to cruelty.

He’s chillingly diabolical, and Christoph Waltz is absolutely mesmerizing in the role, proving his performance in Inglourious Basterds was no fluke (let’s just forget The Green Hornet). All hell is let loose when August recognizes that there is an atrraction between Marlena and Jacob.  His lust for revenge is terrifying.

I wasn’t very excited when the casting for this film was announced. Robert Pattinson was positively laughable in the Twilight movies, but here he is just fine as the quiet, contemplative and brooding Jacob. I did notice that Jacob doesn’t carry that much of the dialogue in the movie, and I am not certain if that is the way Jacob is written in the book, or if it is a way to cover the shortcomings of Pattinson as an actor. Either way, I enjoyed him a lot more than expected. He also looks so much better with a bit of color, instead of being covered head to toe with white makeup.

Witherspoon is cute, as always, but I don’t think that she had enough sex kitten quality to be entirely convincing in the role. However, her Mae West hairstyle, gorgeous silk gowns, and glittery show costumes are to die for.

Her character serves as martyr; it is implied that she sacrifices herself in the bedroom to keep August from further harming the animals or workers. In fact, a large component of the movie is about Marlena and Jacob’s mutual respect and love for animals.

Although the film is being couched as a romance, I found it to be about a lot more, which is why I didn’t get hung up on the chemistry (or lack thereof) of the two principal characters. From the moment that Jacob jumps onto that train, we are drawn into the world of the traveling circus, and I found it utterly fascinating.

The workers and performers are segregated into a caste system of sorts-mere laborers must not fraternize openly with the “talent”.  The workers are fiercely loyal to and protective of one another, and serve as a surrogate family to Jacob. At the end of the day, every person (and animal) that is a part of the Benzini Brothers Circus is an integral cog in the machine, and ultimately they succeed or fail as one.

There is also a recurring story thread about prohibition. A few of the secondary characters suffer grave consequences from drinking poor substitutes for the alcohol they are physically addicted to.

A grand scene showing a “tent raising” is a wonderful spectacle, and you can imagine the awe that captured the audiences in the days before we all knew how the animals were treated. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, Babel).

Despite the fact that the movie is about a circus (albeit a fictitious one) it is surprisingly melancholy.  The animal abuse and treatment of the workers is pretty horrifying to watch. The elephant playing Rosie is terrific, and tugs on the heartstrings.

I have never been a fan of the narrating device of using an older person who flashes back to tell us the story (see Saving Private Ryan, The Notebook), and this is no exception. Just as you are fully immersed in the story, you are jolted back to reality by the elderly person at the end of the story. Hal Holbrook does the honors here, and though I adore him, I felt like the ending was awkward and unnecessary.

Although Water for Elephants will probably be dismissed as a “chick-flick”, there is something here for everyone. The historical aspect of the film was an unexpected pleasure, in addition to the beautiful filmmaking by director Francis Lawrence.  It’s like being swept away to another time for an few hours.

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