WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
When Jacob's parents are killed in a tragic car accident in 1931, Jacob (Robert Pattinson), abandons his veterinary studies and hits the road - to somewhere. He jumps on a night train without realising it's carrying the Benzini travelling circus, where he finds a menial job before being taken on as the vet. The show's main attraction is the horse spectacle, starring the glamorous Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), wife of the circus owner, the domineering August (Christoph Waltz). Drawn to each other amidst the drama of barely surviving in depression America, Jacob and Marlena hide their secret until August realises that they are in love. In the meantime, Jacob helps the circus to box office success with his work on their new star, the elephant, Rosie.
Review by Louise Keller:
Two men, a beautiful girl and an elephant are the main players in this adaptation of Sara Gruen's best selling novel, set in 1931 at the start of Prohibition. It's a glossy tale set on the colourful backdrop of gritty circus life with its carnival of diverse, gaudy characters struggling to survive, love and be kind to each other. In fact, it is the film's well portrayed reality under the big top, in which we can almost smell the sawdust, illegal liquor and animal dung surrounded by exotic performers that excels at drawing us into the story and making it enjoyable - both as a drama and romance.
Although many eyes will be focused on the romantic pairing of Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson and Hollywood's favourite Legal Blonde Reese Witherspoon, in truth they are upstaged by Rosie the elephant and Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, whose portrayal of August, the obsessive, cruel circus owner can only be described in superlatives. Waltz is able to underplay evil intentions; it is only the glint in his eyes that gives a hint to the fury and depravity bubbling below the surface.
In just a couple of moments, August can be charming, lovable and almost child-like in his manner, before giving way to a thunderous rage and a devastating compulsion to hurt, destroy and prove his authority. We have no difficulty in believing that this is a man who decides at the drop of a hat to throw someone who has displeased him off a speeding train.
After setting the scene, the story begins in earnest in flashback, when recently orphaned veterinary student Jacob (Pattinson) jumps on a moving train in search of a new life. Discovering he has in fact boarded a train carrying the Benzini Brothers Circus to its next destination, he quickly learns the behaviour codes and the need to conform if he is to take up the hand fate has served him. I love the scene when August explains the circus mantra about talent and delusion after Jacob confesses his lack of qualifications, when promoted from roustabout to circus vet, explaining the 800lb fat lady really only weighs half that amount. The world is run on tricks, August tells him.
Pattinson has great appeal with the same brooding onscreen delivery we have come to expect while Witherspoon looks the part with platinum curls and circus garb as Marlena, the star attraction and the boss's wife, as she sits atop the performing elephant, after he is secured to save the circus and draw in the crowds. The 10 year age difference between Pattinson and Witherspoon doesn't matter, but the lack of chemistry does, because we never feel a desperate physical longing and need for each other beyond the superficial.
Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese has penned a terrific screenplay (with allegedly some changes from the novel), beginning with its bookend structure to the nicely described characterisations and the complex layers of circus life. The scenes when Rosie the Elephant, standing 9 foot tall and weighing 9,000 pounds performs tricks are natural highlights, although those depicting cruelty are difficult to watch for any animal lovers. (We are greatly reassured by the American Humane Association that no animal was harmed or mistreated.) The cruelty between August and Marlena is implied rather than shown.
The film focuses on the various relationships. There's the budding relationship between Jacob and Marlena, the complex, sadistic relationship between Marlena and August and that between August and Jacob. The inevitable, final confrontation between the two men on the sawdust of the big top is a fitting climax, surrounded by escaped wild animals and fleeing spectators. It is in this scene that Rosie the elephant displays why it is she who deserves the accolades of being the star attraction. It's a satisfying conclusion to a film that has much appeal, even if the romance doesn't zing.
First published in the Sun-Herald
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A rich, layered story filled with emotional undercurrents, Water for Elephants is both a love story and a character drama, and satisfying on all counts. The three leads deliver wonderful characterisations and the screenplay (well adapted from the novel) adds depth and resonance to the love triangle in a way that rejuvenates the old device.
Robert Pattinson is completely free of his famous Twilight vampire persona as Jacob, and makes an effective, likeable (and minimalist) Jacob. There is just the right chemistry between him and Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, who clings to her domineering and volatile husband August, played with wonderful nuance by Christoph Waltz. The three of them, often on screen together, create a terrific dynamic.
All the supports are great, from the miniature Mark Povinelli to the oversize Scott MacDonald. Jim Norton plays a warm hearted old hand nicknamed Camel and Hal Holbrook provides marvellous bookends as the old Jacob, who is telling his story from the vantage point of old age.
There are many great scenes in the film, on the train, at the circus and a couple in towns where they stop along the tour, including one in which prohibition-busting police raid a party. Rodrigo Preto's camerawork is excellent throughout, tasteful and insightful but never too showy. Likewise, Francis Lawrence directs with a sure hand, always keen to bring the emotions of the story to the fore.
The challenges of circus life, the camaraderie and the ever present risk of financial ruin make a rich backdrop and while we meet all the animals, it's not until Rosie the elephant is brought into the show (at a price August can ill afford) that our emotions are fully engaged. At first seemingly stubborn, Rosie has a secret which Jacob unlocks to the great relief of August.
As the romance between Jacob and Marlena blooms - albeit kept discreetly in check - so our understanding of all the characters deepens. August is a complex and flawed character, but Waltz lets his good side balance his weakness so he is far more real than he might have been in lesser hands.
The conclusion is also effective, both dramatically and emotionally, completing the film with a well judged sense of satisfactory story telling.
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WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (M)
CAST: Robert Pattinson, Reece Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Hal Holbrook, Mark Povinelliu, Richard Brake, Stephen Taylor
PRODUCER: Gil Netter, Erwin Stoff, Andrew R. Tennenbaum
DIRECTOR: Francis Lawrence
SCRIPT: Richard LaGravenese (novel by Sara Gruen)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Rodrigo Prieto
EDITOR: Alan Edward Bell
MUSIC: James Newton Howard
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jack Fisk
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 12, 2011