Saturday, April 23, 2011


"Water for Elephants" (2011)

Francis Lawrence's "Water for Elephants" (he previously directed "I Am Legend" and "Constantine," so how he came to something so classic is a mystery) is a sweeping romance in an extravagant setting with a trio of engaging characters--and an elephant--at its center. The film answers burning questions about two of the main actors, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz. First, we walk into this film wondering if, as a leading man, Pattinson will be able to escape his pale-faced glitter vampire of "Twilight" and play a man named--gasp!--Jacob, ironically enough. The answer? He pulls it off and does just fine alongside the elegant as always Reese Witherspoon as his romantic counterpart.

The bigger question answered, however, is whether Christoph Waltz's Oscar win for "Inglourious Basterds" was a fluke. The talented actor proves with resounding confidence that it was indeed no fluke, and Waltz has again been provided with a contradictory and complicated character he can really sink his teeth into. It was as if the role was tailor made for him.

He plays August, a circus owner and ring leader who rules his microcosm of a society within the Benzini Bros. Circus with an iron fist. Much like the twisted Nazi he played in Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," Waltz plays August as both childlike and sadistic, amiable and murderous, and in every single scene he carries these traits with him. August relishes in being able to control others, including his own wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), but loses control of himself far too often exploding into violent fits of rage. Again Waltz is the scene-stealer and elevates this period piece melodrama into something unexpectedly impressive.

Based off the best-selling novel by Sara Gruen, the story is told through a flashback of Jacob as an old man (played by Hal Holbrook). It's 1931, and just as he's about to take his final veterinary exam at Cornell University, Jacob finds out his parents have died forcing him to hit the road. And, what are the chances, the first train that passes by which he decides to jump onto just happens to be a traveling circus show. Jacob gets taken in and starts doing small work for the circus until he meets Marlena and her ill show horse. After nearly getting thrown out by August after Jacob made the executive decision to put down Marlena's horse--and therefore the circus' main attraction--he decides to keep him on as a vet.

In the era of the Great Depression, times are hard and jobs are few. The film's atmosphere does a good job of capturing the period's desperate feel interlacing it with the carefree but reckless circus atmosphere full of shenanigans, animals, drinking and not without some dissension, too. The allusions to the social and political undercurrents of the time are enough to where they give the overarching story some weight and insight. The circus is also bursting with color and vivacity captured thoroughly in the cinematography when not observing the darker, murkier underbelly such as life upon the train in between shows.

Most important to the story is the blossoming--yet forbidden--romance between Jacob and August's wife, Marlena. The interplay between these three characters is engaging and harrowing enough to keep us caring for how it inevitably turns out for the main couple. Witherspoon's Marlena is a character not brave enough to leave her husband when she should've but also smart enough not to upset his ill temper. She is a lovely but smothered centerpiece to the circus, a glowing vision of a female equestrian bareback rider.

Also important is the beautiful performing elephant Rosie who becomes the circus' main attraction. The scenes where characters engage with her have heart and a natural sweetness to them that comes from any moment of people working closely with intelligent animals. The contrasting moments of animal cruelty are as hard to watch as you could imagine. We care for Rosie because she's charming and full of personality as much as any movie animal in recent memory.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! This on actually interests me, and good to see a positive review. Nice blog as well.