Wednesday, May 18, 2011

New Release Review: Water for Elephants (Francis Lawrence, 2011)

Directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz in the lead roles, Water for Elephants is the film adaptation of the acclaimed best seller by Sara Gruen. Through the commercial success of the novel, the rich historical period, the magical and romantic backdrop of circus life and of course the substantial pulling power of the cast, Water for Elephants was destined to draw solid numbers at the box office. Though not groundbreaking in any way, and lacking passion, it is a charming and reasonably well-told tale.

The structure is not particularly original; as the entire story is told as a flashback to 1931, a depression-riddled period of the United States amidst the Prohibition. Travelling circus acts were aplenty, and there was a fierce rivalry between owners, who fight for revenue by offering the best attractions, and are often forced to resort to corrupt and inhumane acts (on the spot firing of employees and animal cruelty) to ensure they can afford the glamorous attractions that will draw the crowds. The film is framed by a pair of scenes, those featuring an elderly Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) as he relays the story of his involvement in 'the greatest circus disaster of all time'. After his eldest son had failed to bring him to the circus in town, he decides to sneak out of his aged care facility and see the show for himself. When he arrives at the venue he is too late, but one sensitive employee (Paul Schneider) escorts him out of the rain and tries to contact his facility. Intrigued by his sprightly personality, and his knowledge of history, he asks Jacob to tell his tale.

In 1931, a 23-year-old Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is only an exam away from graduating from Cornell University with a degree in Veterinary Sciences. As he sits down to take the exam he is relayed the news of his parents death from a car accident, and that his family home had been surrendered to the bank by his father is exchange for his tuition. Devastated, and now homeless, he sets out to look for work in the city. He stumbles across the travelling Benzini Brothers circus, stows away on the train, and is assigned work by a kind elderly employee. Instantly captivated by the beautiful Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), he notices a hoof injury on one of her performing horses. Declared an impostor, having snuck onto the train and taken advantage of food and shelter, he is introduced to August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), the charismatic but menacing circus owner. Jacob is hired as the vet after August discovers his Cornell credentials and learns of his accurate observation of the horse's injury.

There are various tensions and conflicts that ensue between the three. Jacob is terrorised by August after he takes it upon himself to put down the injured horse, which is further complicated when Jacob emotionally bonds with Marlena (his wife). August unveils his newest attraction, a 53 year-old elephant named Rosie, and insists that Jacob train it. Jacob learns to control the gifted elephant by speaking in Polish, transforming the circus into a winning success once again. That is, until August finds out about the blossoming secret romance between his two most important employees, culminating in an intense struggle for her affections.

Water For Elephants is a good-looking film, with the cinematography, production design and costumes all impressive. The plot is also lifted to romantic heights by the accompanying score, which is guilty of being a little stagey at times. While the performances are all effective, it is unfortunate that the chemistry isn't strong enough to keep us engaged with these characters, nor like them very much. The affectionate relationships take tumultuous ups and downs, with often serious conflict quickly resolved in the next sequence. Pattinson's inexpressive performance, while it certainly doesn't have the world convinced he can be an adequate leading man, was better than I thought it would be. Reese Witherspoon (who I used to like very much, until her string of films following Walk the Line) was oddly cast and not altogether convincing. Clearly attached to the life that her husband has built for her, Marlena is reluctant to seek a life outside the Big Top. While it seemed inevitable that her and Jacob would end up together, the attention she gave him felt like she was taking him for a ride. There is a moment, I think after two brief encounters, when she says, "I'll be sorry to see you go." I don't know when she developed this care for him. Perhaps she was impressed by his guts to stand up to August. But there are implausibilities like this that affect our relation to the characters.

Christoph Waltz, who I thought would get a string of great roles following Inglourious Basterds, is typecast as a charismatic villain once again (much like in Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet). Having to blend charming qualities with his selfish and malicious nature, Waltz gives the best performance. His swift bond to Jacob, and his eager willingness to trust him, is somewhat of a character stretch for someone who finds it difficult to trust anyone. When Jacob later reveals that he had never actually graduated, it is waved off without a second thought. The romantic sequences give us absolutely nothing new and often fizzle with tired cliches. The film moves quickly to begin with, but then becomes quite tedious in the second half, feeling a lot longer than the scheduled 120 minutes. Still, despite losing interest there for a while, Water for Elephants remained entertaining enough, and the Depression-era context was recreated effectively. While August's lawless regime selfishly lets loose anyone it pleases, the romantic beauty of circus life is effectively conveyed.

While the spectacle is relayed in an early scene as Jacob strolls amongst the rising Big Top, it feels constrained in most sequences, save for the near unfathomable antics of Rosie the Elephant. The dramatic conclusion was unexpected, but welcomed. I was quite surprised by how intense the film became at the conclusion. There was a moment when Jacob contemplates killing August and it is shot and scored in a way that uncannily resembles Jim's rampage at the conclusion of 28 Days Later. Okay that may be taking it a bit far, but it was what came to me at the time. Believing the film to be more of a soppy romance (don't worry, there is plenty of that), this violent confrontation and famous disaster, though implied early in the story, still came as a surprise. The final images, a collection of home video reels of Jacob and Marlena with their children had a reminiscence that felt unnecessary. Overall, Water For Elephants is quite an enjoyable romantic drama. I imagine fans of the novel will not be disappointed, but for those unfamiliar to the story, you will find it pretty forgettable.

My Rating: 3 Stars (C+)

1 comment:

  1. Personally I was glad they didn't make the "I didn't graduate from Cornell" a big story point. The way August kept mentioning, I was sure it was going to be third act revelation, so I liked how they subverted that expectation. Overall I think I liked film a little more than you, but we basically agree on all points - weak romance, great performance from Waltz and really beautiful looking sets and costumes