If you took the movie Titanic and placed it in the backdrop of the 1930’s circus, that’s essentially what Water For Elephants is. Knowing that, I was still pleased to see that the movie works.
Based on the widely popular novel, Water For Elephants is the story of an old man (Hal Holbrook) looking back on the fantastic moments of his life. In his 20’s, young and sensitive Jacob (Robert Pattison) is a veterinary student when he joins the circus. He eventually becomes smitten with the jealous ringmaster’s wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon,) the circus’ main attraction and their love grows.
Christoph Waltz is mesmerizing as August, the ringmaster and bossman of the circus. The role of August is a great villain, but is a touch more-human than his other notable role of a Nazi in Inglorious Basterds. He’s abusive to his wife and the animals, which caused some of the people I was with in the theater to gasp. One of August’s favorite hobbies seems to be having his thugs toss the no longer useful employees from his moving train in the middle of the night. So much for job security.
Because of the Twilight films, I didn’t expect much from Robert Pattinson. His performance is sensitive, but pretty stiff. Even when he’s being belted with pies and seltzer water as a type of circus hazing ritual, it was tough for him to crack a smile. I am blind to any flaw that Reese Witherspoon might make. She is always golden in my eyes.
The circus is an odd world, full of duality. From the viewer’s perspective, it can be magical and fantastic. Behind the scenes it can be quite a different story. The film gets credit for representing the dark side of caging wild animals. Outside of the show, their lives looked miserable and depressing.
That’s why even though the story is light, those who commit bad deeds are appropriately punished. Justice is served and the viewer is left with some satisfaction having watched it all go down.
One side note. Look closely at the circus wagons in the film. Some of them were on loan from Circus World Museum. I recognized a couple, but was surprised they let them use them, considering how much badmouthing of the Ringling Brother’s Circus there was.