Water For Elephants

Water For Elephants


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Water For Elephants raises many intriguing questions: Can Robert Pattinson break out of his Twilight typecasting? Will it revive the circus movie genre? And couldn’t anyone think of a better title?

To be fair, it’s taken straight from the source novel, Sarah Gruen’s 2006 bestseller. But it’s one of those titles that’s obviously meant to sound profound and magical, but doesn’t actually mean very much – which, sad to say, is my verdict on the film as a whole.

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It opens with a grizzled but immaculately-dressed old timer (Hal Holbrook) wandering in a daze outside a modern, fixed-location circus. The night attendant, an aficionado of the glory days of the Big Top, takes him in and while trying to get in touch with the nursing home, discovers that the old man remembers the Benzini Brothers travelling show of the 1930s. The outfit was legendary, not least for its eventual demise, which the attendant opaquely refers to as “one of the great circus disasters”.

Anyone expecting a life story told in flashback at this point can claim free admission to see the bearded lady. Every rolling back the years cliché save for the screen going wobbly is deployed as Holbrook transforms into R-Patz – nice work if you can get it - and since this is Depression-era America, without the drawbacks of screaming tweens, bizarre internet rumours or sleaze-hunting paparazzi.

Pattinson is Jacob Jankowski, apparently the American Dream incarnate – the son of a hard-working Polish doctor and his wife, who’ve raised enough money to send their son to Cornell University as a veterinary student. But on the day of his final exams, this idyllic world is shattered. His parents are killed in a car accident and discovered to be hopelessly in debt. The bank forecloses and Jacob is left homeless and penniless.

He quits college and wanders in a daze, following the railroad tracks in search of work. Hopping onto a passing train on a whim, he finds it belongs to the Benzini Brothers Circus, one of the last of the great touring attractions.

Jacob starts off as a manual labourer, and is smitten by the exotic combination of animal acts, clowns, trapeze artists and carnival freakshow attractions. But when word gets out of his veterinary skills he finds himself in the orbit of Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the bareback rider who’s the star of the show, and her husband August (Christoph Waltz), the owner/ringmaster.

August becomes Jacob’s mentor, especially when the company acquires Rosie, an Indian elephant, to boost declining audiences, and Jacob proves to have a unique bond with her. But August’s brutal methods of animal training, based on cruelty and dominance, set the two men against each other – on top of which Jacob is falling in love with Marlena...

If you’re expecting subtlety and nuance here, forget it. The film’s an unashamedly full-on exercise in manipulating your emotions, giving you an event every five minutes and keeping Kleenex in business. Nothing wrong with that, and it’s very much in the tradition of Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth and Carol Reed’s Trapeze, which laid on the melodrama as thick as a clown’s makeup.

But given that the writer is LaGravenese, who combined the magical and the mundane to brilliant effect with his script for The Fisher King, one might have expected something a little more subtle and evocative, that truly captured the tawdry beauty of a once-universal entertainment form in its dying days - and perhaps cast an ironic eye on the fact that it was the rise of cinema which hastened its demise.

Instead, everything is bathed in a rosy, nostalgic glow and the harsher aspects of the Depression are either glossed over or used as handy plot motors – as in the case of ‘redlighting,’ the practice of throwing recalcitrant or surplus employees off a moving train, which causes the deaths of a couple of supporting characters so crusty but lovable that you just know they won’t make it to the end credits.

And if you’re not a fan of circuses in general, I doubt this will convert you – Rosie’s undoubtedly as much a star of the film as any of the humans, and every humane regulation was obviously followed scrupulously in her scenes, but I still found it demeaning to watch a beautiful animal performing the same tricks for a camera as it would for a ringmaster.

It’s all very professionally done. Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain), production designer Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood) and composer James Newton Howard (just about everything) keep it all looking and sounding high-end and handsome. Lawrence (undoubtedly trying something different after I Am Legend and Constantine) keeps things cracking along nicely and, given not much to work with, the actors acquit themselves pretty well.

Pattinson is as good as ever at looking handsome but troubled – Jacob is another basically sympathetic boy-man to add to his extensive collection. But his best chance of becoming known as more than the face that sold a million calendars will be to try a role that has some genuine darkness or ambivalence.

He could do worse than look at Waltz’s performance, which brings a much-needed edge and whiff of danger to the proceedings. Charming and charismatic, holding together an enterprise he clearly loves through guile and bluff, he’s a seductive character, but with an intensity and passion that translate into an urge to dominate and control everything around him. Not quite as mesmerising a turn as Inglourious Basterds, perhaps, but still the best thing about this film by a mile.

Witherspoon certainly looks the part, bringing more than a touch of Jean Harlow to her portrayal of the orphaned lifelong performer who only comes alive when in the ring. Unfortunately, that’s only when her performance comes alive too; when called upon to display the genuine emotional heft that the story’s central triangle requires, she seems curiously inert.

The supporting performances are actually the most diverting in this film – Holbrook was probably born avuncular and cements his status as America’s favourite twinkly oldie; Paul Schneider (a long way from his turn as Keats’ best friend in Bright Star) impresses in a brief role as the lifelong circus fan and Jim Norton (for me, forever Bishop Brennan in Father Ted) is great fun as the grizzled old hand who first shows Jacob the ropes.

It’s not bad if you like your big-tent releases simple and formulaic, but for a genuinely mesmerising take on the world of the circus, get a DVD of Robinson Savary’s Bye Bye Blackbird – and wait for this one to fill the vacant Billy Smart slot in the Boxing Day telly schedules.

Reviewed on: 07 May 2011
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An old man recounts his experiences with a travelling circus in the 1930s – and his love for the ringmaster’s wife.
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Director: Francis Lawrence

Writer: Richard LaGravenese, Sara Gruen

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider

Year: 2011

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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Bye Bye Blackbird