Francis Lawrence's Water for Elephants
Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
Water for Elephants (2011)
When the trailers for “Water for Elephants” first started showing, it looked like the film had a fifty-fifty chance of turning out decent. This was figured from the casting of two of the leads. There’s Robert Pattinson, who’s not exactly known for being a great actor, and then there’s the great Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz, who, while still being relatively new to American films, raises the anticipation level of any film he’s in. With these two cast in the film, it seemed as though Pattinson would be pulling the film down, while Waltz would be trying to elevate it, but the result is actually quite surprising.
Told in a flashback, Jacob (played as an old man by Hal Holbrook and by Pattinson as a young man) recalls what happened to him in 1931. His father runs a veterinary clinic and Jacob is studying to take it over. The flashback begins on the day Jacob is taking his final exam at Cornell, but during the exam he is told the tragic news of his parents’ death in a car accident. As a result, his father’s house and clinic are taken away, leaving Jacob to go out on the road. He decides to make his way to Albany in hopes of finding work, but on the way he jumps aboard a train which just happens to be a traveling circus.
He is given work, food, and is introduced to the head of the circus, August (Waltz). Jacob also meets his wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star attraction. Once August finds out that Jacob has knowledge of veterinary science, he hires him as the circus’s vet. This comes in handy right away as he has to deal with a limping horse and eventually August’s newest acquisition, an elephant named Rosie. As Jacob continues to work with Marlena on the new elephant act, he becomes closer and closer with her until it’s clear that they have something between them. However, August runs a tight business and begins to pick up on their relationship which brings out the tyrannical temper he’s known for among the performers.
“Water for Elephants” is a slowly-paced film, which can be a bad thing for certain stories, but here it’s done deliberately because this is a story that slowly changes over from a boy being tossed into the world after his is turned upside down to finding a new life with a new family in a place he didn’t expect. This is a film that gradually unfolds, and yet, is always able to keep the audience engaged.
While the film never reaches greatness, and indeed, some of the scenes are greater than the sum of the parts, it is these special moments that keep the film moving along at a good pace. It’s easy to sympathize with a young man who has to leave everything he knows behind to try and find work during the depression, but there are several touching moments, such as when Jacob breaks the language barrier with Rosie or when he first witnesses the magic of the circus being assembled and the performers putting on their shows, that elevate the film. Even more surprising is the fact that the film doesn’t stray into melodrama, even though it could have done so very easily given the subject matter.
As for the performances, my main concern was for the usually-gloomy portrayals that Pattinson tends to give. From the “Twilight” films, you would think that he doesn’t know the first thing about acting or about choosing good material. In between these films, he also made the disappointing “Remember Me,” which was also bad material, but it also showed that Pattinson had a little potential as an actor, and while there were several moments in that film that showed he had some ways to go, it at least showed that he was learning. Here, he’s still a little glum, but he manages to deliver his best performance to date. That’s not saying he’s particular good, just that he’s getting better at it, as well as becoming a better judge of material.
Then there’s Christoph Waltz, who worried several of his fans after his incredibly weak performance in “The Green Hornet” earlier this year. I’m glad to say he has bounced back and delivers a great performance as the ruler of the circus. He’s sly, charming, and mean as hell when the role calls for it. In fact, it’s a little similar to his role as Col. Landa in “Inglourious Basterds,” personality-wise at least. August is the kind of character who rules over his operation with an iron fist, and that includes his wife. Waltz pulls this off wonderfully, delivering the best performance in the film.
Overall, the film ends up being more charming than it seemed it would be and rather beautiful to look at. It’s been called an “old-fashioned” film, which it somewhat is. I doubt there would be too many studios lined up to tell a story about a circus anymore. However, with its charm, touching moments, and a great performance from Christoph Waltz, “Water for Elephants” is a surprisingly good film that once again shows that first impressions aren’t everything. 3/4 stars.
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