Joan Crawford’s Berserk! was disturbing for a host of other reasons. And don’t forget Big Top Pee-Wee… oh, you already did. While Water for Elephants isn’t likely to spur a generation of kids to run away and join the circus, it is a handsomely-made, pleasingly old-fashioned love story set against the backdrop of a struggling circus during the Great Depression.
Robert Pattinson gives a strong, impassioned performance as young Jacob Jankowski, but to be honest, he gets a huge boost by being introduced as an older man played by Hal Holbrook. Holbrook’s haunted eyes do more heartbreaking acting than most young actors do with their whole performance, and it can’t have been easy playing a lonely widower so soon after losing his wife Dixie Carter last year. The older Jacob is found soaking in the rain by the manager of the Circus Vargas, apparently having been left behind by his nursing home bus. Charlie (Paul Schneider), the circus manager, gets into a discussion of big top disasters and discovers that Jacob was there in 1931 for the infamous Benzini Brothers catastrophe.
Caught off guard by a faded picture of a beautiful woman on an elephant, Jacob reveals that she was Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and that the ringmaster in the photo was her husband August (Christophe Waltz, in a brilliant, violent performance). In 1931, Jacob was a Cornell veterinary student with a bright future, but his parents were tragically killed in a car accident, leaving Jacob bereft, and as it turns out, without a home. His parents had spent everything and gone into debt to send Jacob to college, and the realization is more than he can handle.
Jumping a passing train, he finds that he has inadvertently “run away to join the circus.” The Benzini Brothers Circus is run by the dedicated but ruthless August, who rules his people as harshly as he does his poor animals. Despite its PG-13 rating, you may find it hard to watch his brutal attack on Rosie the elephant, August’s latest “star attraction”. Jacob and Marlena bond over their love of animals, first her prized show horses and later Rosie, and Jacob’s veterinary skills prove invaluable to the circus. It doesn’t take long before August’s violent outbursts drive Marlena and Jacob together, but getting away from August may prove deadly. Anyone whom he deems a threat or a financial liability is routinely “red-lighted”, tossed from the fast-moving train by August’s goons.
Witherspoon plays against her natural alpha personality to play the passive Marlena, but she demonstrates strength when needed as Marlena finds her independence. She effortlessly evokes Jean Harlow. Waltz proves that his terrifying Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds wasn’t a fluke. He mines complex depths from his villainous character, showing the scared and insecure man beneath the monster. Pattinson is a better actor than he’s given credit for, and he makes Jacob a fully-rounded hero.
Water for Elephants is gorgeously-rendered and emotionally satisfying, apparently streamlining Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel for the screen without losing any of its power. Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and director Francis Lawrence do a masterful job showing the hardships of the Depression against the tattered magic of the circus. Tai the elephant also deserves special mention, since Rosie is a vital part of the film’s success. Water for Elephants is not a film full of surprises, although what Marlena’s fate was and how Jacob ended up forgotten in a nursing home are questions you want to see answered. Sometimes, a well-made, romantic classic is just what the veterinary student ordered.
UPDATE: Water for Elephants is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.