Francis Lawrence’s adaptation of Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants is a beautifully filmed, old-fashioned romantic melodrama about forbidden love in a barnstorming circus during the Great Depression. Hal Holbrook continues his string of sterling latter-day turns as old Jacob Jankowski, who has memories of his days in the doomed Benzini Brothers. Circus, circa 1931. Cue flashback and in comes a soulful, brooding Robert Pattinson as young Jacob, a veterinary school dropout (he’s got reasons) who hops the circus train and quickly becomes enmeshed in the filthy (literally and figuratively) side of circus life. His knowledge and compassion for animals quickly catches the eye of star horseback rider Reese Witherspoon –and her alternately charming and sadistic husband, the ringmaster and circus owner Christoph Waltz. Enter Rosie the new elephant and star attraction and before you can say love quadrangle, Witherspoon is making googly eyes at Pattinson, Pattinson is making googly eyes at Witherspoon– and Rosie (nice chemistry there), Waltz smiles and glowers at everyone depending on his mood or plot development. This really shouldn’t work–there are hokey plot developments and an ending that you can see a mile away– but surprisingly it does. The movie accumulates a lot of period detail and captures the desperation of people who need to be entertained—and quite simply need to work , even under the dangerous conditions imposed on them by Grand Master Waltz.
Pattinson does well in the lead, and while Pattinson and Witherspoon don’t generate a lot of heat, there is a surprising amount of tenderness that carries them a long way. And if Waltz’ character seems to be twice as villainous as humanly possible, there’s a reason–the screenplay by Richard LaGravanese combines the novel’s owner and the trainer characters into Waltz’ smiling August–whose ineffective, barbaric way with animals–and humans could only be gotten away with if the trainer was indeed the owner. Waltz may not play something resembling a credible human being, but he is extremely entertaining and his presence is electric throughout. If you enjoy a romantic melodrama–or a tale of life under the Big Top, then you should enjoy Water for Elephants.
As long as we’re talking circus, there are a couple of films that are worth owning and are both available on Amazon.com:
Trapeze, recently released on DVD by MGM Classics, is a terrific tale of passion in an Italian circus, as crippled trapeze artist Burt Lancaster tries to get rising star Tony Curtis to achieve the elusive triple somersault, as Gina Lollabrigida smolders in the background. There’s plenty of circus action, the three leads are dynamite, and the film builds to a very satisfying finish.
In The Big Circus, flamboyant, outspoken circus owner Victor Mature tries to keep his circus together despite such obstacles as fastidious accountant Red Buttons, insecure tightrope walker Gilbert Roland, looming bank creditors and some not-so-looming saboteurs. Toss in ringmaster Vincent Price and lovable clown Peter Lorre (in full makeup) and you have a fast-moving, colorful circus yarn that is guaranteed to entertain.