Reese Witherspoon as Marlena
Robert Pattinson as Jacob
Christoph Waltz as August
Paul Schneider as Charlie
Jim Norton as Camel
Hal Holbrook as Old Jacob
Mark Povinelli as Kinko / Walter
Richard Brake as Grady
Stephen Taylor as Wade
Ken Foree as Earl
Scott MacDonald as Blackie
Sam Anderson as Mr. Hyde
John Aylward as Mr. Erwin
Brad Greenquist as Mr. Robinson
Directed by Francis Lawrence
After his parents are killed in a car accident leaving him penniless, veterinary student Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) runs off and joins the Benzini Bros. Circus. Once their sadistic owner and ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) learns of Jacob’s veterinary background, he hires him to care for the animals, though Jacob has an eye for August’s wife and the circus’ star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). The circus has been failing so August buys an elephant named Rosie to try to get people back into the bleachers.
Even without reading Sara Gruen’s bestsellling novel but knowing the story and why women love it, few would be shocked it would be adapted to the screen so quickly, because it makes the perfect fodder for the type of old school Hollywood romance epics that have done so well going back to “Gone with the Wind.” Other than maybe Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia,” which suffered from a cumbersome story and over-romanticizing of the old movies it tried to emulate, few modern movies have tried to capture that sort of look and feel and been able to do it as ably as “Water for Elephants.”
It opens with a scene of Hal Holbrook standing outside a circus in the rain, obviously playing an older version of Robert Pattinson’s Jacob, and he proceeds to tell a circus worker his story as we watch it unfold in flashback. After suffering a personal tragedy, Jacob’s introduction to the circus is not a pleasant one, its owner August reluctant to hire anyone new due to the circus’ growing financial problems, but Jacob’s veterinary background wins out. August’s wife Marlena is the circus’ star performer, but when the main horse in her act dies, August has the duty of buying an elephant and he wants Jacob to train it for her new act.
Some may be surprised to see the name of Francis Lawrence listed as director, not that his previous genre films weren’t directed just fine, but “Water for Elephants” seems like such a departure from them. He handles the real world material quite masterfully, establishing the circus setting as a backdrop for a fairly conventional drama, while capturing all the magic and romanticism that comes along with that environment. Granted, this isn’t a story that requires great subtlety and Lawrence doesn’t let his budget go to waste, enhancing every shot with lush and lavish scenery.
He’s working from a solid screenplay by Richard LaGravanese, whose writing really pushes the cast to do stronger work. Pattinson brings plenty of personality to Jacob, making him immensely likeable and keeping the viewer invested in all his highs and lows, the role offering lots of opportunities to show a wide range of emotions. Witherspoon doesn’t have a lot of heavy lifting and she’s more impressive for her acrobatics on an elephant than her dramatic moments. Their romance is kept mostly on the backburner for a good hour, but what keeps the movie from being a standard love triangle conflict between Jacob, Marlena and August is the arrival of the elephant Rosie and what her presence brings to their relationships.
When Rosie isn’t stealing scenes, that honor goes to Christoph Waltz, whose character August is an amalgam of two characters from the book. Similar to his role in “Inglorious Basterds,” Waltz is once again playing a violent and sadistic man who hides under the guise of a calm and compassionate one. Who knows what is going on with his accent or where this character is supposed to be from, but as shocking as it is when August’s psychosis rears up, the fact Waltz has moments where you actually feel bad for his character exemplifies the subtle genius behind his performance.
Many of the scenes are played up for maximum melodrama, but it never feels like any scene is being used merely as story filler, because even some of the lighter scenes are used to enhance the family atmosphere of the circus. By the very nature of this style of storytelling, it’s fairly obvious where things are going, especially when it comes to some of the side characters, and the third act does take a bit of a downturn as things start going exactly where expected, but it builds to a fantastic climax that’s larger in scope and scale than anything else in the movie, and it all pays off.
The Bottom Line:
Few films deliver exactly what’s advertised as well as “Water for Elephants” does with the results being an old school Hollywood romantic epic unlike anything we regularly see anymore. The fact it works as well as it does is a strong testament both to the source material and to those involved with bringing it to the screen.