Beyond the big top, life is hell at Benzini Brothers Greatest Show on Earth. Animals are fed rotting meat and work until they collapse.
Workmen subsist on hooch and three squares, waiting weeks for a paycheck. Layoffs are dispensed by red lighting, with men thrown from a moving train.
The circus is home to a small, dedicated band seeking more than survival during the Depression. These beings want excitement and greatness, the chance to break free and be loved and accepted.
Madman runs the circus
Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) brings energy to the drama as ringmaster August. Bombastic, terse and menacing, Waltz plays a paranoid schizophrenic who pours champagne one moment and brutalizes his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) the next.
Lawrence (I Am Legend; Constantine) crams too much of the book into this film. He peers most at its harshest realities. As a result, the action lags occasionally and feels grim.
Robert Pattinson seems to play Robert Pattinson rather than orphaned veterinary student Jacob Jankowski, displaying a Twilight-like, flat affect with a hint of smolder.
The actor achieves some chemistry with glowing Witherspoon, and he convincingly relates to Rosie the elephant and other animals.
Couple loves elephants
The love of animals and a “sixth sense” about the beasts draw Jacob and Marlena to each other. Tai, the elephant who plays Rosie, looks mournful as she’s brought in to save the struggling circus.
We learn that she likes whiskey and lemonade, and answers to commands in Polish. Rosie performs her duties with uncanny wisdom. She’s capable of flashes of humor and rebellion.
This film received the No Animals Were Harmed (R) designation of the American Humane Association.
Pattinson too low key
Pattinson’s low key approach doesn’t always stand up alongside colorful Waltz. In one confrontation with August, Jacob seems to fade into a wall. A high point is an early scene where the two leap atop boxcars of a train snaking into dusk.
Hal Holbrook ties the film together with early narration. As Jankowski in his nineties, he visits a modern-day circus and tells his story to Charlie (Paul Schneider).
Holbrook’s special moment
“I had a good life, you know. A big life,” Jankowski says. With melodious voice and teary eyes, Holbrook is a treasure.
Reese Witherspoon is a regal survivor. In keeping with this film’s tone, she remains cool and removed. Delivering some wonderful equestrian acrobatic scenes, she loses the Witherspoon warmth found in Election and Legally Blonde.
Witherspoon cool and removed
“Out there I got nothing, just like everybody else” says Marlena. “There is something better for you,” Jacob promises.
An excellent supporting cast includes Jim Norton as the roustabout Camel, and Mark Povinelli as Jacob’s roommate Walter.
Violence mars film
Despite its PG-13 rating, Water for Elephants is not a feel-good, family film. Ultimately uplifting (screenwriter Richard LaGravenese uses Gruen’s delightful surprise ending), it dwells in a sad, gritty place.
Several violent scenes late in the film depart significantly from the novel. There was no need for these, since Gruen’s vision and her beloved animals deliver a baptism that is powerful enough. (4 out of 5 stars)
If you like Water for Elephants, you might enjoy: Blue Valentine.
Water for Elephants 2011 / PG-13 / 2 hours
Cast Overview: Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Cristoph Waltz, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Hal Holbrook, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Tai, Uggie, Ice, Major
Director: Francis Lawrence
Genre: Drama, Romantic Drama, Drama Based on the Book, Period Piece