The World’s Run on Tricks: Thoughts on “Water for Elephants”
By John C.
Water for Elephants opened over the weekend, comfortably coming in at number three at the box office, despite receiving a decidedly mixed critical response. The film stars Robert Pattinson in his first big role outside of the Twilight series, and it’s a good film worth talking about even though we unfortunately didn’t get the chance to publish official reviews.
Last Monday, when I wrote about the numerous books that are getting the big screen treatment this year, I referenced Vancouver-born author Sara Gruen’s wonderful novel, Water for Elephants. Although a few of Gruen’s metaphors are admittedly touched with cliché, the book is an intimate and moving human tale set against the grand and gritty world of a 1930’s circus.
Director Francis Lawrence’s big screen adaptation is refreshingly old-fashioned, and I mean that in the best possible way. The film version remains surprisingly faithful to the source material, while effectively eliminating sub-plots and characters to make for a smoother on-screen narrative. At 121-minutes, the pacing is somewhat slower than what we’ve come to expect from most mainstream movies, but it feels genuinely authentic to the 1930s.
Our story starts in present day with a man in the twilight of his life (Hal Holbrooke) looking back over his troubled past. Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) was an orphaned university drop out in 1931, who finds himself hired as a veterinarian for The Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth. The sleazy circus is run on dark secrets by the sadistic ringmaster, August (Christoph Waltz) and the star attraction is his beautiful wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).
If the Benzini Brothers don’t start packing the crowds into the big top, then the purchase of a lovable elephant named Rosie might go unjustified. When Jacob finds himself falling for Marlena, August becomes paranoid and starts to feel like he’s losing his tight grip on the circus. As he tells Jacob over a pivotal scene, “the world’s run on tricks, and everybody plays.” There are a few moments where we might sense melodrama, but everything is kept appropriately in tone with the story.
Although everyone seems to be citing the fact that the cast isn’t going to be honoured come awards time, a good script by Richard LaGravenese allows the actors to all turn in believable performances. Pattinson has come a long way since the terrible indie films he did before the Twilight series, and this is his best work yet. Witherspoon has admittedly delivered better performances, but she also serves the story well. The chemistry between them might not be as strong as some audiences would have hoped, but it works in a quiet way that doesn’t overwhelm the story.
Waltz is the real star here, delivering another chilling performance after his Oscar-winning turn in Inglourious Basterds. We often don’t know how far his character will take things in terms of abuse, and this adds a layer of suspense to the story. But there is another actor in the room that also deserves praise for a strong performance. Tai the elephant is probably my favourite member of the cast, providing scenes of both humour and heartache.
Rodrigo Prieto’s beautiful cinematography is nicely touched with shades of memory, and the production design is spectacular right down to the paint on the trains and authentic costumes. The crucial scenes of both animal and human abuse are suitably disturbing, but are somewhat toned back from the book and only shown in brief flashes. The movie really isn’t appropriate for younger viewers, but they aren’t the target audience for the film.
Maybe this film isn’t destined to be remembered at the end of the year, but it certainly works as a piece of classy entertainment that is quite refreshing before the summer movie season starts later this week. The final few scenes of Water for Elephants are moving and sentimental, winding down with the same mixed emotions as when the big top tent is taken down after the circus. Mature audiences will come to enjoy the show, and hopefully take away their own memories from the experience.