‘Water for Elephants’ movie review: Witherspoon, Pattinson in circus romance

While the dramatic aspects of Francis’ Lawrence’s Water for Elephants don’t quite come off as effectively as they should (and likely did in Sara Gruen’s novel, unread by me), the film has one real pull: a picture-perfect recreation of depression-era circus life, which is lovingly and painstakingly recreated, warts and all.

This is a beautiful film to look at, and Lawrence and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Babel, 21 Grams) know it, often holding their shots longer than necessary to the potential detriment of the plot. 

We only catch fleeting glimpses of the actual acts, usually in montage, from the various animals to acrobats, tightrope walkers, clowns, 400-pound women and other “freaks”; I could watch this stuff for hours, though – here’s hoping the DVD/Blu-ray includes additional circus footage among the bonus features.

Of course, this is also a romance of more traditional proportions. When the parents of Cornell veterinary student Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) die in 1931, leaving him only their debts, he drops out of school and joins the circus. Not by intent: he merely hops on the first train to come his way, which just happens to be the famous Benzini Brothers Circus. He’s taken in by old hand Camel (Jim Norton), who attempts to get him a job.

Water for Elephants opens and closes with that well-worn bookend of an elderly person returning to a scene of importance and ‘remembering’ the contents of the movie. 

This is a tired cliché, even in great films like Saving Private Ryan, but it’s effectively pulled off here, thanks in large part to the performances of Hal Holbrook as the old Jacob Jankowski and Paul Schneider as the young circus hand he tells his story to. As with many of these bookends, however, some of the film’s potential surprises are spoiled early on.

The lead performances are also solid. I’m not sold on Pattinson’s acting abilities, but he has undeniable screen presence. Witherspoon, quickly becoming one of her generation’s most talented actresses (is the star of Legally Blonde the new Meryl Streep?), disappears into her role while Waltz (effectively) plays the same slimy-but-human villain he won an Oscar for in Inglourious Basterds and phoned into The Green Hornet

Up next for Waltz: the new Three Musketeers adaptation, in which he plays chief villain Cardinal Richelieu (sigh) and Roman Polanski’s Carnage; let’s hope the Polanski film gives him some room to grow.

There’s just one problem here, and it comes down to Pattinson and Witherspoon, or the writing behind their characters: they’re missing the fire, the intensity. Their romance falls a little flat. And because of this, the dramatic elements late in the film also break down a little, and feel perfunctory rather than necessitated by the actions of the leads. 

Water for Elephants coasts just fine most of the way, but by the end we’re undeniably left wanting a little more.

Still, this is a gorgeous-looking film. You might not expect romance from the director of Constantine and I Am Legend, and that’s exactly where Lawrence falters, but he has otherwise delivered a solid, well-crafted feature.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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