Film Review with Robert Mann – Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants ***½

“Life is the most spectacular show on Earth’ reads the tagline for Water for Elephants, the latest romance movie starring Twilight star Robert Pattinson – thus ensuring that an army of swooning teenage girls will be marching upon multiplexes to see it in addition to the more mature moviegoers to whom this film is perhaps more likely to appeal. Of course many who actually live life might not quite agree with such a statement but it is undeniable that life itself has provided the inspiration and basis for many a great film and the story at the heart of this one is certainly one with great potential for cinematic enchantment and wonder. Based on the 2006 historical novel of the same name by Canadian author Sara Gruen, which was originally written as part of National Novel Writing Month, an annual internet-based creative writing project which challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel in one month, and since been published has spent 12 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and continues to be a huge paperback bestseller, Water for Elephants has thus far failed to provide much spectacle in terms of the reception of its cinema release, the response from critics being a very mixed one while at the box office it has proven to be at best a moderate success, but, just like the book, it has still amassed a significant legion of fans, whether they be more discerning moviegoers attracted to the film by the classy and sophisticated marketing campaign and the promise of an old fashioned style extravagant romance or younger cinemagoers simply out to swoon over star Robert Pattinson.

Despite the film appealing to a rather broad audience, covering everyone from the young and easily excited to the old and demanding in society – something which might be expected to make the film a slam dunk at the box office – the somewhat underwhelming box office performance on its release both in the states and here in the UK could possibly have been influenced by a certain amount of controversy surrounding the film’s production over a scene in which an elephant is depicted covered in blood and suffering from bruises and injuries. The scene is apparently mostly computer generated and the blood used fake but, despite claims that the elephant learned the tricks necessary to do the scene prior to the film and assurances from the producers that no animals were harmed in the making of the film, a claim that has been supported by the American Humane Association, a video from 2005, released by Animal Defenders International, showing the elephant being taught the tricks that it would later perform in Water for Elephants, tells a different story, apparently depicting the elephant being abused by its trainers. Whether or not this is true or if it affected audience interest in the film, however, remains to be seen. 


The underwhelming box office could simply be attributable to a lack of bankability on the part of its stars, Robert Pattinson not having found as much success away from the Twilight franchise while Reese Witherspoon hasn’t been much a commercial anchor as of late either. Box office appeal aside, though, Pattinson and Witherspoon actually seem like pretty good choices for the roles – even if the pairing of them as lovers might seem a bit off to some due to Witherspoon having previously played his mother in a deleted scene from 2004 film Vanity Fair. Both rank among the legions of fans of Gruen’s novel and both have considerable experience in playing romantic leads. 


As for the supporting actors, Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz once again plays the villainous role, this time being given far more to work with than he was in January’s underwhelming superhero flick The Green Hornet and respected actor Hal Holbrook also contributes as the older version of Pattinson’s character. Credentials behind the character are somewhat uneven however. Writer Richard LaGravenese certainly seems like a good choice to adapt Gruen’s novel for the screen, his past credits including such films as The Fisher King, A Little Princess, The Bridges of Madison County, The Mirror Has Two Faces, The Horse Whisperer, Freedom Writers and P.S. I Love You, but director Francis Lawrence is a somewhat more leftfield choice, having started out as a music video director, directing videos for the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears and since become better known for action horrors like Constantine and I Am Legend. With Lawrence not really having demonstrated himself to be capable of the more subtle kind of filmmaking the story at the heart of Water for Elephants clearly entails, his involvement may make some uncertain over how the film has turned out. So, if “life is the most spectacular show on Earth” how successful is Water for Elephants in emulating it?

Present day. Outside a circus an old man (Hal Holbrook) is standing in the pouring rain. Invited inside by the circus’ owner, the man reveals that he was once part of a circus, the Benzini Brothers Circus in fact, one of the biggest circus disasters of all time, and he retells his story of how he came to be a part of it and how he played a significant role in its eventual downfall. It’s 1931 and America is in the midst of the Great Depression. Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is a young veterinary student with a great future ahead of him but everything changes for him when his parents are tragically killed in a car accident, leaving him wandering homeless, penniless and without destination or hope. But destiny it seems has grander plans for him. While walking the railroad in an attempt to get to a city in the hope of finding work, Jacob hops aboard a passing train, a train that turns out to be the home of The Benzini Brothers Circus. Rather than being thrown off the moving train, Jacob finds himself taken under the wing of circus employee Camel (Jim Norton) and soon finds himself travelling along with the circus as their newest employee. 


His veterinary skills, it turns out, are greatly needed by the circus and August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), the circus’ owner and ringmaster, sees great promise in him, making him the circus’ vet and putting him in charge of keeping the animal performers in working condition. As he is welcomed by the circus and befriended by his fellow employees, including bunkmate (Mark Povinelli), Jacob finally feels like he has found a home in the world, particularly as he develops an immediate rapor with the circus’ latest acquisition, a fifty three year old elephant named Rosie, and the star attraction, the radiant Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). As he becomes closer to Marlena he finds himself falling in love with her but there is a problem – she is married to August and, while he may seem charming enough at first, his charismatic demeanour conceals an almost psychopathic mean streak. A mesmerising performer who has a natural gift with animals, Marlena is trapped in her marriage to August as his behaviour becomes increasingly violent and erratic, Jacob tries to help her escape, threatening to unleash August’s full on rage in the process. August is the one thing that stands between Jacob and Marlena and their true love and Jacob is not going to let him get in the way.

The opening shot of Water for Elephants, one that shows the exterior of a present day circus, portrays a sense of wonder and excitement, the two things that the circus is and always has been all about and that this film is also very much about. The essence of the film really captures both of these things and the spirit of everything that happens really emphasises that there is much wonder to be found in life with a well told story emphasising the life journeys of each of its characters quite effectively. Visually, meanwhile, it is a very spectacular show, not just perfectly capturing the look and feel of Depression/Prohibition era America but featuring richly detailed extravagance in every shot of the circus that its events take place around, from the magnificent costumes to the performances which truly emulate the sense of wonderment that the people at the time would have experienced upon witnessing the spectacle of a circus. The way the circus routines are performed and shot combined with the light and enchanting music that accompanies them makes for scenes that are wondrous and magical and the tricks the elephant performs are incredible and all the more so for the fact that they are completely real, even if the knowledge that it may have been abused when it was being taught to perform dampens the enjoyment somewhat. 


The circus depicted in the film truly is a spectacular show and the stunning and enchanting imagery doesn’t end there with cinematography that is often beautiful giving us some truly stunning visuals, a particularly good example coming in the form of shots that show Jacob and August walking atop the train as it chugs along against the backdrop of a beautiful cloudy night. For all the extravagance on display, however, the film doesn’t glamorise life, showing the incredible ups but not denying the harsh lows and effectively reflecting that life isn’t always nice. There is real beauty to be found here but there is also great sadness and the result is something that isn’t always light or easy viewing but that rings true to life and that feels all round complete with their being more than a hint of tragedy to proceedings and the film often proving quite harrowing to watch, whether it be as a result of the sound of a shot firing as Jacob puts down a horse in pain, a scene that shows August jabbing the elephant relentlessly with a bull hook, the aftermath of Rosie being brutally beaten by August (the scene at the centre of some of the controversy surrounding the elephants alleged mistreatment) or a scene where August goes berserk and releases all the animals onto a crowd of circus patrons. Fortunately, while the film is sometimes hard to watch, there is an ample amount of well placed humour to provide light relief, with the dialogue occasionally proving very funny and the potential for circus based humour not going by unexploited, and the sense of wonder and excitement ultimately never fails to come through. 

Starting and finishing Titanic style with the old Jacob retelling his story to a modern day circus employee, the film never forgets that it is really about its characters and their life stories and Richard LaGravenese’s script provides plenty of very good character moments, each character being very well developed, and delivers dialogue that doesn’t just sound authentic but is very engaging to the ears, the words of the characters sometimes being quite beautifully put and the conversations between characters really commanding the attention. The plot is also strong, the story being very well told, but this wouldn’t count for much if the characters at its heart weren’t so well put across. The strengths of the writing gives the cast members quite a lot to work with but alas it is here where we find an almighty elephant in the ointment as the acting isn’t quite spectacular, generally not being as good as you might expect…except for Christoph Waltz that is. Just as he did with his award winning performance in Inglourious Basterds, he steals the show with a truly sensational performance that sees him effortlessly shifting between the charming and charismatic and sinister and nasty sides of his character’s personality. 



Delivering a performance that is very classy and sophisticated, he has all the charisma and flamboyance to make for a spot on circus ringmaster but, playing a character with a very aggressive personality and one hell of a mean streak, he is also coldly sinister, proving entirely believable as a psychopathic individual, us really being led to believe that, as his character stands over Jacob with a shovel, he actually will kill him and his character’s evilness being perhaps best illustrated when his character aggressively pokes the elephant. Compared to him, Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon just aren’t quite good enough. Pattinson certainly looks very distinguished and shows that there may be life for him after Twilight but he falls far short of perfection with a performance that is strong but never quite makes the full necessary emotional impact and Witherspoon, while convincing a very warm and caring personality, also never quite makes the impact that is really needed. 


Together, they also don’t have the most convincing chemistry although they nonetheless do make for an appealing couple and fare pretty well in the tender scenes they share together, with Witherspoon certainly seeming more belonging to Pattinson than Waltz here – largely because Waltz’s character is a monster though. Hal Holbrook, meanwhile, portrays the older version of Jacob with a great deal of dignity and integrity but his role is a brief one, amounting to two scenes that bookend the story and the way his narration is replaced by that of Robert Pattinson doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given that it is always the older version of the character who is telling the story. One other key mention must go out in terms of the cast and that is for the elephant portraying Rosie. As much a character as any of the human cast members, she is truly majestic and it is hard not to be awed by her in every scene she features in. In many ways, I suppose you could say that she is the true star of the film. All in all, Water for Elephants is a well executed and enjoyably old fashioned movie that provides plenty to feel good about. Held back from greatness only by the slightly underwhelming performances from its two principal leads, it is a film that may certainly make you believe that life really is the most spectacular show on Earth even if, as a whole, it sadly isn’t quite so spectacular.



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Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

© BRWC 2010.


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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

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