Ladies and Gentlemen…
Life is the most spectacular show on earth – and Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants has become the star attraction for the big top. Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson star in an exaggeration of the classic ‘runaway circus boy’ tale, their chemistry exploding onto the screen along the way. But this is scant to the entire feel of the film – Francis Lawrence fleshes out love, loss and oppression in an adaptation that will leave you bewildered and leaning forward in your seat.
The plot is told from the flashback of an elderly Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook); a twenty-three year old Jacob (the younger counterpart played by Pattinson) loses his parents, home and life in a tragic accident and joins a travelling circus as the appointed ‘vet’, falling in love with the enchanting Marlena (Witherspoon) and all the while avoiding her spiteful husband (Christopher Waltz).
There’s some sort of eerie spiritualised feeling that orbits the drama – shaded low-angle shots and a varied exposure of light create an elusive tone and otherwise represent the raw array of emotions showcased by Pattinson, Witherspoon and Waltz alike. On a more historical level, they serve to mirror the experience of the 1930’s Depression, the time period in which the film takes place.
Lawrence is also very quick in uncovering the hardships of the historical context by portraying Waltz as an aggressive and domineering dictator. The oppression of the circus animals by the cast parallels that of the human experience – one that is brutal and unsympathetic. Rosie the Elephant becomes a symbol of oppression of both classes alike, and this powerful imagery is an enchantingly beautiful reminder of the unjust domination that plagues us today.
If there’s one major problem, it’s that it feels ‘rushed’; the first five minutes Pattinson is left homeless, penniless, parentless and the next hour sees all the action fly by until all that’s left is to develop the relationship with Witherspoon until the finale. The pace seems too quick to engage with the characters on a deeper level. And whilst Robert Pattinson proves to be a star in himself, it isn’t much of a breakout role considering he’s playing a womaniser and still hopelessly lovesick.
But at least there’s no gay sparkling like the Twilight series, and at least he appears genuinely ‘human’ along with the rest of the cast. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and at the same time deep and provoking, so it pulls its weight on both levels and makes the journey all the more worthwhile. It’s never too late to run away with the circus, is it?