Directing its affection to multiple agents (the circus, the leads, the relations with animals and more significantly, the golden age of film), the oddly-titled Water for Elephants is a production that oozes grandeur out of its every vein. Magnificently designed and meticulously filmed so that every last sparkle of the magic from the big top reaches the viewer, Elephants tells the story of Jacob (Robert Pattinson), the stowaway upon the train of the Benzini Bros., a struggling yet grand circus company, run by August (Christoph Waltz) and his wife, the star attraction Marlena (Reece Witherspoon).
Whilst initially seeming like a romance by numbers, any preconception one may have is washed away by the surroundings. Set in the depression of 1931, the circus and its performers evoke imaginations of simpler times, when a real treat involved see acrobats, clowns and their ilk. And none are more of a treat than Rosie, the elephant which finds itself part of the main act and threatens to steal the show. As she evolves from unruly to perfecting the art, she’s a charming screen presence and is bound to capture the hearts of the audience.
The romance between Marlena and Jacob, the vet who finds his way into her heart to some may seem to lack chemistry, but in actuality it’s intentionally understated, preventing the film from veering into the saccharine territory and creating a bond which is believable rather than contrived. Whilst Witherspoon possesses the look held by the screen sirens of the ‘30s and Pattinson shows enough to suggest that there is life beyond sulky vampires from a certain teen franchise for him (and this is infinitely better judged than Remember Me), the film is unquestionably Waltz’s. Although he is now destined to play the charming menace for most of his career, there’s little better than him. Every smile has an undercurrent of threat, and even when holding an ordinary conversation, Waltz holds a glint in his eye and tone to his voice which creates masterful uneasiness.
The plot is not without its holes nor is the film without its imperfections (one particular strand involves Jacob’s mentor contracting a serious illness from the effects of drinking Jamaican ginger extract. When he’s hidden from August to prevent his disposal, that’s the last we see or indeed hear of him) yet even if the central story is unappealing to some, the visuals and settings demand a watch. Needless to say, the elephant enclosures at zoos everywhere are going to get an increase in viewers if nothing else.