Review: Water For Elephants


Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by:Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese based on the novel by Sara Gruen
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Paul Schneider, Hal Holbrook, Mark Povinelli
Released: May 12, 2011
Grade: B+

The year is 1931 and Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) is aboard a train with a travelling circus troop.  A long-time member of the group offers him some friendly advice - “If you got any kind of life to go back to, that’s what you should do.”

Unfortunately for Jacob, he has nothing else.  His parents were killed in a car accident and the bank took possession of the family home.  With next-to-no money, he was forced to give up his veterinary studies and accept this job caring for circus animals.  The pay is dreadful (just $9 a week) and his living quarters are even worse.

The show’s star attraction is a beautiful woman named Marlena (Witherspoon).  She enters the arena on horseback and puts on a dazzling acrobatics display.  Always watching is the troop’s manager, August (Waltz).  He’s all smiles in front of the audience but things are very different behind the scenes.  August runs the business in a ruthless, domineering fashion.  While he sips champagne in his luxurious cabin, his employees and animals suffer in filthy working conditions.

There’s another reason that August keeps a close eye on Marlena.  She’s his wife.  The film doesn’t go into their background but you'll sense their marriage wasn’t based on pure love.  August wanted a striking young blonde to parade as his own.  Marlena wanted a distinguished suitor to provide wealth and security.

You should know where this story is going by now.  Jacob and Marlena become friends and with the help of a little flirtation, it threatens to develop into something much deeper.  It leaves Marlena searching her heart for answers.  Her life with August isn’t perfect but does she really want to give it all up and take a chance on a guy she hardly knows?  It reminded me of the dilemma faced by Kate Winslet’s character in James Cameron’s Titanic.  

I was pleased with the traditional, simplistic style used by director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) in bringing the film together.  The delicate score and softly-focused camera lens help transport us back into 1930s America and into this fulfilling tale of romance and circus animals.  The closing credits serve as a final confirmation that Lawrence wanted to make an “old school” movie.

I’ve quickly grown tired of the Twilight series and so it’s nice to see Robert Pattinson in a juicier role.  I enjoyed watching his relationship develop with Reese Witherspoon.  Instead of blurting out every feeling and emotion (which tends to be the norm in such films), these two go about things a little more slowly.  You’ll see the connection but also the trepidation as they struggle to gauge each other’s feelings.

I wasn’t a fan of the short, current day storyline (involving Hal Holbrook and Paul Schneider).  It felt unnecessary and as if the writers were trying to turn the film into some kind of “fairy tale”.  The time should have been used developing the supporting characters instead.  Others within the circus troop have a role to play but we don’t get to know them very well at all.

It’s not a movie that will blow you away but Water For Elephants is warm, comforting and easy to watch.