Monday 16 May 2011

Movie Review: Water For Elephants (2011)

A classic love triangle set against the backdrop of a touring circus desperately trying to survive the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Water For Elephants succeeds thanks to the memorable setting and committed performance from the three lead performers. It may not be the most original story every filmed, but it is delivered with compellingly grimy panache.

In 1931, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is a young student about to graduate from Cornell University's veterinary school when his world collapses around him: his parents die in a car crash, and all their belongings are seized by the bank due to a mountain of debt. Left with nothing, Jacob abandons his life and joins the Benzini Brothers Circus. August (Christoph Waltz) runs the circus with a cold heart and an iron fist, including throwing men from the moving train when he can't afford to pay or feed them. His attractive wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) is the star attraction of the circus, with an elegant animal tricks show.

August hires Jacob as the circus vet and because he enjoys the prestige of having a college educated staff member. It does not take long for Jacob and Marlena to develop a mutual attraction that does not go unnoticed by August. With the bad economic times getting worse, August acquires Rosie the elephant from a defunct circus in a final desperate attempt to revive the fortunes of Benzini Brothers. With Jacob's help in training Rosie, Marlena's new show atop the elephant is a huge hit. But August cannot control his mounting fury at potentially losing Marlena to Jacob, and his rage results in a classic circus tragedy involving wild cats on the loose, a crowd stampede, and one vengeful elephant.

Told from the perspective of an elderly Jacob (Hal Holbrook) recounting the story decades later, Water For Elephants thrives in the smelly environs of a travelling circus made up of desperate characters traversing a desperate United States in desperate times made less tolerable by prohibition. As brought to life by director Francis Lawrence, there is nothing attractive about the Benzini Brothers, despite August's efforts to place the occasional gloss of glamour on his life. Christoph Waltz gives August a single-minded survivalist clamp on his circus, justified by the agonizing alternative of starvation for him and his wife.

Reese Witherspoon is almost angelic in both look and behaviour as Marlena, likely an appropriate portrayal since we are seeing her through Jacob's adoring eyes. As for Robert Pattinson, taking a break from the Twilight and Harry Potter franchises to play Jacob, he is earnest to a fault, with a character that is unfortunately less interesting for being almost too honest and too straight.

Water For Elephants may lack the sparkle of originality, but it finds its strength in capturing the anxiety unleashed by misery to deliver a rich experience of romance and sorrow.

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