For every dream of running away to join the circus, there is an accompanying film that shows either its wonders or horrors. From the terrifying horror of Tod Browning’s Freaks, through the pure joy of Disney’s Dumbo and the noir of Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog, circuses have always been places of mystery and magic. Humans and animals alike perform feats of wonder, but there is something else intangible that lurks just beneath the surface. Sara Gruen’s novel “Water for Elephants”, deals with these representations in an almost biblical manner, and it was originally written as part of the “National Novel Writing Month”. A screen adaptation was inevitable.
An elderly Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook, TV’s The Event) visits a local circus when his son fails to show up at the retirement home. Recounting his life story, we learn that a young Jacob (Robert Pattinson, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), after losing both of his parents and failing to graduate from Cornell as a veterinarian, the Depression-era runaway survives after a chance encounter with a train. Soon a part of the Benzini Brothers travelling circus as their vet, Jacob begins to fall for one of the star attractions, the beautiful Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, How Do You Know), despite the fact that she is married to the brutal ring-leader August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz, The Green Hornet).
Francis Lawrence may not have been the most obvious choice for this period melodrama, with his previous big-budget adaptations of DC/Vertigo Comics Constantine and Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend the only features under his belt. Yet it is a steady hand that guides this sometimes saccharine, often soapy, piece of historical fiction. While it is ostensibly a vehicle for Twilight star Pattinson, who has been given very few opportunities to flex his acting muscles in the emo-fantasy series that he will forever be associated with, there is much to like about this very old-fashioned tale of jealousy, betrayal and sweeping romance. It is a simply tale to be sure, with very few frills or embellishments, but it is grounded in a realism and believability that is all too absent from modern romantic cinema. Taking a leaf out of HBO TV shows Boardwalk Empire and perhaps more aptly, Carnivàle to create a lived-in world that serves as the basis for this straightforward tale of star-crossed lovers. It is Jack Fisk’s production design that is the real star here, and elements of it may evoke his frequent collaborators David Lynch (Mulholland Drive), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) or his Oscar-nominated work on P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
Witherspoon and Pattinson make a good-looking couple, of course, although only perfunctory courtesy is paid to developing any real romance between the pair in the lead-up to the epic finale. Waltz offers the most compelling character as the actor struggles to find another role to match his breakout American performance in Inglourious Basterds. Yet while the world waits for Waltz and Quentin Tarantino to collaborate again on the spaghetti western Django Unchained, the character of August Rosenbluth provides a layered character who is not entirely evil, but commits some entirely evil acts in the course of a misguided pursuit of nobility. Writer Richard LaGravenese, who is no stranger to either romantic dramas or animals in his scripts for The Bridges of Madison County and The Horse Whisperer respectively, delivers a classic kind of story that displays its origins like the elephant in the room but is nevertheless heartwarming and easy to slip into.
A solid piece of entertainment that harks back to an old-fashioned form of storytelling to appropriately tell a tale as old as time. What is partly a star-vehicle is greatly grounded by lush production design and a bountiful supply of animals. It turns out they do make them like they used to.
Water for Elephants is released in Australia on 12 May 2011 by Fox.