Water for Elephants
(M) Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz
Water for Elephants — an adaptation of the Sara Gruen bestseller about the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931 — brings the big top back to the big screen.
Reese Witherspoon stars as Marlena: the star attraction on a white horse. Robert Pattinson is Jacob Jankowski, a vet in search of work who stumbles upon the circus. Christoph Waltz plays August Rosenbluth, ringmaster and husband to Marlena.
The story is told in flashback after the elderly Jacob finds a listening ear about his time spent with the Benzini Brothers.
The film uses the exploitation of animals as its 21st century touchstone and its old-style Hollywood melodrama gives the film a timeless elegance
Jacob lost his family in an accident after they worked hard to get him through university. On an impulse, he jumped aboard a train that turned out to belong to the Benzini Brothers and found himself immersed in a new life with exotic animals, twinkling lights and gifted performers.
Menacing and mercurial, August presides over the circus with an iron fist and is devoted to his wife Marlena. But he must also have power over those in his care which leads to hideous mistreatment of both humans and animals — and his wife endures his harshest treatment.
Marlena and Jacob bond quickly over their shared desire to see the circus animals treated with dignity and compassion, something unheard of in the 1930s.
When the circus acquires an abandoned elephant named Rosie, she becomes a backdrop against which each person’s character is clearly exposed — those who would seek to mistreat her for monetary gain and those who clearly care about her wellbeing. Rosie will play a pivotal role in both forcing and resolving the great Benzini Brothers Circus disaster of 1931.
Pattinson’s performance is the centre-piece and moral compass of the film (despite falling in love with a married woman) and while Twilight films often don’t require him to do much more than pout, in this film his journey is both engaging and visceral.
Waltz, who won an Academy Award for his performance as the sadistic Nazi officer in Inglorious Basterds, is complex and chilling as August, for whom success is measured by those who he can control for personal gain.
Witherspoon — channelling Jean Harlow — is both graceful and luminous as the shining star of the big top, yet her performance may be one of the film’s weakest links, perhaps because her role is more one-note than Waltz and Pattinson’s.
The film uses the exploitation of animals as its 21st century touchstone (something that wouldn’t have been given a second thought in the 1930s) and its old-style Hollywood melodrama gives the film a timeless elegance. Production design is as vibrant and sumptuous as you would expect as is the rousing musical score from James Newton Howard.
The circus is a fascinating backdrop, full of dirt, grime and spectacle and fans of good storytelling will enjoy the dark and dangerous fairytale.