by Hugh Fisher
It’s the rare movie that can immerse you in a fictional world that’s simultaneously familiar and foreign, rich and strange.
“Water for Elephants” hits the mark, taking us to another era and dazzling us visually.
Disclaimer: I haven’t read the wildly popular Sara Gruen novel on which the film is based, so I’m not qualified to tell you how much lovers of the novel might nit-pick the screen version.
I’ve also stayed far, far away from any of the “Twilight” books and movies, so when I see Robert Pattinson as the naïve veterinary student Jacob Jankowski, I’m seeing him without any sparkly vampire baggage.
The story is a creative twist on the age-old American dream of “running away with the circus.”
It’s the Great Depression – times are tough, thousands are out of work and Jacob finds himself wrapped up in the world of “The Most Spectacular Show on Earth,” the Benzini Brothers Circus.
This show is run by August (Christoph Waltz) who, as ringmaster and mastermind, rules the circus with an iron fist. The performers and circus workers are barely scraping by, sometimes not getting paid, sometimes getting thrown off the train in the dead of night.
August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), is a beautiful performer whom he abuses, driving her as hard as he does the animals.
Jacob finds work as the circus vet and is called upon to care for the investment that’s going to save Benzini Brothers, an elephant named Rosie. As August’s new golden boy, Jacob has to keep Rosie in line, help his fellow circus workers and come to terms with his budding passion for Marlena.
Visually, it’s a great film. The tattered world of the circus and the steamy, sadistic side of living hand-to-mouth are conveyed very well.
But it could’ve been stronger with more energetic performers. Witherspoon and Pattinson are good actors, but they’re not phenomenal. They play their parts well, but there’s not the depth of emotion you might hope for.
I wonder if the hope of attracting audiences with “star power” trumped the possibility of a better, lesser-known cast.
Waltz gives the best performance of the movie as a man tormented by his inner demons – a villain with a heart and weakness that he acknowledges. He’s the human embodiment of the circus’ toothless lion: ultimately damaged and frail, yet still dangerous and able to kill.
This movie presents a very touching story, and does so well. Too bad the romantic leads lack the gravity to match the ragged-edge lifestyle we see from the rest of the cast and the world they inhabit.
Grade: 3.5/4 Stars