A film review by Craig J. Koban April 28, 2011

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS jjj
½

2011, PG-13, 122 mins.

 

Marlena: Reese Witherspoon / Jacob: Robert Pattinson / August: Christoph Waltz / Old Jacob: Hal Holbrook

Directed by Francis Lawrence / Written by Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Sara Gruen

One of the rare and gratifying surprises of this spring movie season, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS – based on the Depression-era romantic novel by Sara Gruen – is not only a bravura showcase of old school production artifice, but it marries that with an equally old fashioned romantic melodrama that Hollywood just does not seem to fashion as habitually anymore.  

What it does is not easy: it not only has to deliver a soft and sentimental tale of forbidden love with just the right tact so it does not come off as laughably maudlin while framing that within a lush, large scale and palpable period design that does not go overboard with lame CGI enhancements.  Also assisting matters tremendously is the fact that the film co-stars Christoph Waltz, giving another persuasively mesmerizing performance that - along with his work in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS - highlights an actor of eruptive power and transfixing allure. 

The screenplay - credited to THE HORSE WHISPERER scribe Richard LaGravenese – makes use of a framing device that he used in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, which in turn echoes Gruen’s book, albeit with some minor and unobtrusive modifications.  The novel begins with a 90-plus-year-old man serving up memories of his young life in the circus during the height of the Great Depression.  In the film incarnation, we meet the aging Jacob Jankowski (played by the great Hal Holbrook, who knows how to give characters like this a grass roots gravitas and modest-minded authority) as he stumbles on to a modern day circus.  He encounters the young circus operator who kindly takes the old man out of the rain and into his office.  Their idle conversations turn more compelling, especially after the weepy eyed Jacob looks at an old photo of a female performer on top of an elephant and reveals that he was a circus man himself. 

The narrative then flashes back to when Jacob is 23 and is an aspiring veterinary student on the cusp of graduating from Cornell University when personal disaster strikes.  Just as his final exams begin he is given the traumatic news that his father (a vet himself) and mother were brutally killed in a car accident, which puts a huge damper in Jacob finishing school and joining his father’s practice.  Even worse is the fact that Jacob’s father went deep into debt and the bank has foreclosed on his home and practice.  With no family, no place of residence, and no desire to finish school, Jacob has a breakdown and leaves his home in search of…something. 

In the dark of night he comes in contact with a large circus train caravan and hops on board, but his clandestine efforts to secure a free trip catches the eyes of some of the local circus pit crew and eventually leads to a meeting with the head owner and operator of the circus himself, August (Waltz).  As the overseer of his Benzini Brothers train and act, he his fiercely guarded of his creation, not to mention that he does not take kind to strangers jumping on board his train without an invite.  He decides to have Jacob thrown off the train, that is until Jacob tells a white lie by informing him that he is a Cornell veterinary graduate that can help him with one of his show horses that is showing ill signs of heath.  At that moment, August hires the lad as his circus’ chief vet. 

 

 

The more time Jacob spends with his new surrogate circus family the more he begins to see August as a man that is capable of being outwardly charming and debonair while, underneath, he harbors a sadistic inhumanity directed towards his animals and his crew.  He also becomes attached to the show’s signature performer, a bareback horse rider named Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) who just happens to be August's wife.  Marlena too becomes attached to Jacob, partially because of their mutually love and appreciation for animals, but perhaps more because Jacob represents the type of young man she could have found herself with if she did not spend her life under the big top with August.  Jacob soon begins to find himself falling in love with Marlena, which would prove to be an occupational  - and maybe physical - death sentence for him at the circus, but he also finds if difficult to endure August's rampaging abuse of both Marlena and the circus' new star attraction, a 50-year-old elephant named Rosie.  The story comes to an obligatory confrontation between all parties where Jacob desires to flee the circus with Marlena in hand, but not without the demonically possessive August having a say in the matter. 

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS was consummately directed by Francis Lawrence, whose previous film resume would never hint at a film such as this: he made the thanklessly decent post-apocalyptic thriller I AM LEGEND as well as the insidiously entertaining CONSTANTINE.  Utilizing a paltry $38 million budget and the assistance of production designer Jack Fisk (who has worked on all six of Terrance Malick's films) and cinematographer Rodrigo Preito (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN), Francis conjures up a dreamlike and romanticized vision of Depression-era circus life that utilizes a tried and true production aesthetic instead of a heavy preponderance on computer effects (which could have been tempting in lesser hands).  Not only does Lawrence evoke a startling sense of the period with an indiscrete style, but he also creates a sense of Golden Age Hollywood splendor with his use of real exteriors and virtuoso sets to convey time and place.  One of the film’s most fascinating montages shows the tenuous grind of putting up the circus tent for an upcoming show, and the scene carries an aura of tactile spectacle that few modern films have. 

The film is also surprisingly touching with not only the budding romance between Marlena and Jacob, but also for the love they both reciprocate to the animals that August beats with a stomach churning brutality (animal lovers will have difficulty watching some scenes in the film).  I also found the smaller moments involving the discovery of how to communicate effectively with Rosie (she responds to Polish spoken commands) equally captivating.  The elephant on display here in not merely a prop for the film, but rather an integral character of sorts that is deeply involved within the tense character dynamics of the plot.   

Finally, we are given a glimpse of Robert Pattinson actually investing himself in a fully layered and disciplined performance that is not punctuated by the actor’s past tendencies to let his stare, hairline, and annoying broodiness sell his character.  Pattinson has the outward façade of a handsome, 1930’s era film leading man, but I was surprised by what a low key, self-effacing, and calmly intonated performance he gives.  Witherspoon has been criticized somewhat for playing a one-note victimized wife role in the film without her trademark sassiness and energy (to be fair, my main complaint with the film is the annoying submissiveness of its lone female role), but Witherspoon is not playing a role full of rosy buoyancy and pep: she is a wounded and melancholic soul that is not allowed an independent existence.  She is suitably muted and delicately underplays her trophy wife part, and her key scenes with Pattinson are equally nuanced and underplayed for just the right effect.  

Then of course, there is the great Christoph Waltz as August, who creates – outside of his Jew Hunter in the aforementioned Tarantino film – one of his most hypnotically unforgettable creations.  He plays August as a man that can disarm you with a gregarious civility that, seemingly unprovoked, is prone to borderline volcanic bouts of rage and antagonism.  His August is both a man of limitless power, shameful egotism, and pitifully jealousy.  One thing is clear: Waltz is an exceedingly rare breed of actor that is impossible to look away from when he’s on screen; he’s just a commanding presence to behold in any part. 

Hardcore cynics will find it hard to enjoy a romantic melodrama set in the Depression and within the confines of a traveling circus (on paper, yes, it sounds silly).  Yet, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS has the aura of so many well-orchestrated throwback pictures that dared to tell ageless love stories amidst the backdrop of period spectacle.  Like THE NOTEBOOK, it’s a tastefully rendered, exquisitely shot, and finely acted melodrama that, with the right frame of mind, you just have to simply accept and go with.  I did.

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