Water for Elephants
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 8 May 2011
It’s sometimes difficult, when discussing the film adaptation of a book, to consider it on its own merits as a standalone work of art. Readers of Sara Gruen’s novel of the same name will no doubt have made their own casting choices, but hopefully they will be pleased with the largely faithful cinematic result.
Twilight’s Robert Pattinson gets some colour in his cheeks and proves he can do romantic along with a boyish smile, as Jacob, a young man whose promising future as a veterinarian is shattered one day, sending him out into the world to seek a different fortune. Leaping aboard a passing train, he finds himself swept into the world of the Benzini Bros Circus, training their star elephant, and falling for the boss’s wife (a beguiling turn from Reese Witherspoon).
It’s little wonder the book was pilfered for the screen. There is no better medium for exploiting the colours and drama of a circus, and the Depression-era setting, with its fabulous costuming and Prohibition-be-damned guzzling of champagne and Moonshine, evokes an exciting life. The casting is reliable – all the extras have true “old-timer” faces, and the leads are uniformly compelling, particularly Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz (who shot to English-language fame in the recent Tarantino cannonball Inglourious Basterds) playing circus owner August. Waltz walks the tightrope between generous and loving, driven and possessive, in a character that could have wound up two-dimensional in the hands of others. His strength lies in combining an underlying menace with vulnerability, and in response Witherspoon’s Marlena is strong and compassionate towards him, eschewing the dumb blonde.
Circus life isn’t all fun and games of course, and the film seems a bit by-numbers at times, meandering plot-point to plot-point with clichés bootlegged from fare like The Notebook. The forbidden romance itself is a slow-burn, though the chemistry is just about right to keep us caring. This is definitely a film for animal lovers, with exciting stunt work and a proper old-fashioned circus feel to the proceedings. Worth a ticket.