Water for Elephants

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 May, 2011, 12:00am


Starring: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz
Director: Francis Lawrence
Category: IIA

Water for Elephants could be an American riposte to the British heritage film. Francis Lawrence's film is a tastefully mounted, beautifully shot and exquisitely acted piece of nostalgia for a past age. But rather than romanticise the glamour of a disappeared (or disappearing) golden age, Water for Elephants celebrates the arrival of one in which down-and-outers struggle against stark social odds in their rites of passage towards fulfilling lives - a precursor to what would later be spun as the American Dream.

Adapted from the award-winning Sara Gruen novel, Water for Elephants is set in the 1930s, with the US mired in the Great Depression.

Initially, Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) seems immune from the economic malaise around him. The handsome Cornell University student is just an examination away from becoming a veterinarian, a career that will allow him to take over his father's clinic and secure social and economic standing for himself.

His world collapses when his parents die in a traffic crash and he discovers his father has chalked up huge debts because of his generosity to his impoverished clientele. Losing everything, Jacob abandons his studies and leaves, hopping onto a passing train out of town with nothing but the clothes he's wearing.

Inadvertently he finds his calling treating the animals of the travelling Benzini Brothers circus, headed by the company's brutal ringmaster August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz).

While amazed at the circus' ability to 'create heaven in one day' wherever they set up stall, Jacob soon finds his lofty humanist ideals pitted against August's harsh pragmatism. This conflict is brought to the fore early when Jacob puts down a crippled horse, much to the fury of August, who believes that 'if we can walk it, we play it'.

Further complicating matters, Jacob falls for Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, above with Waltz, left, and Pattinson), the circus' star performer who also happens to be August's wife. Compounded by Jakob's rising tensions with August over how he runs the ring, the liaison eventually brings about the film's chaotic denouement.

The film is supposed to revolve around the budding romance between the starry-eyed Jacob and the emotionally unfulfilled Marlena. While Pattinson and Witherspoon acquit themselves in summoning the angst and confusion of their respective roles, the lack of chemistry between the pair undermines this premise.

Rodrigo Prieto's camerawork helps fill in the pathos lacking from the relationship, but it's Waltz's turn that really saves the situation. His performance brings to life a villain who's as much as a victim of his times as Jacob is, an outsider forced to the margins as circuses become family entertainment in what August brazenly calls 'the United States of Suckers'.

Water for Elephants opens today