Water for Elephants – based on the novel by Sara Gruen – is a film typical of old Hollywood and is reminiscent of the film fare from the 1930s. It starts out with an older Jacob Jankoski (Hal Holbrook) who has escaped the confines of his retirement home when his son forgot a due visit. So we see him approach a circus and talk to the ticket seller who first sees him as a nuisance. But when he begins to tell the tale of how he joined the circus as a young boy, the narrative captivates his audience of one.
We learn how Jacob (Robert Pattinson) was left penniless as a young Cornell college student. His aspirations of becoming a vet are cut short until by coincidence he ends up as a stowaway on the train carrying the Benzini circus. Pattinson actually does a good job in this movie by shovelling manure, feeding lions and diagnosing illness in circus animals – you can almost forget he is also the sparkly vampire heart-throb of teenage fans. Jacob is first treated with some respect by the circus master because of his education but after witnessing the cruelty his employer inflicts on a young elephant with a bull hook, the initial bit of camaraderie between them fizzles. His boss, August (Christoph Waltz) is of unpredictable temper, which can sometimes be very violent and tends to make everyone deferential towards him; this includes his young and beautiful wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) of Marilyn Monroe-esque locks whom he regards as his star attraction.
So when Jacob falls in love with Marlena, it creates a dangerous situation for both of them. August is a commanding man capable of terrible cruelty to the animals, to his employees and even to his wife. The representation of the Great Depression and the impact that it had on the circus was beautifully conveyed through period costumes, mood lighting and the overall atmosphere of chaos. In my opinion, I felt the husband and wife shared more chemistry than the wife and her lover. Most of Jacob’s chemistry seemed to be directed toward Rosie (Tai), the elephant. Also, while Reese Witherspoon seems to have improved from her role in How Do You Know, Marlena still seemed lacklustre perhaps because they did not give her enough depth as a character ; it was as if she was a pretty face who could do some stunts but is only a possession. So when Jacob has Marlena run away with him, he realises August will not rest until he has his vengeance. Being a little careless about where they stay allows Marlena to be taken away from him after thugs loyal to August give him a hiding. So he carefully plans a way to return and release Marlena from her brute of a husband.
It will suffice to say this strategy of his meets with some complications along the way but Jacob ultimately achieves his goal. Directed by Francis Lawrence whose previous directing credits include I am Legend and Constantine, here you have a film that relies heavily on mood and setting instead of CG rendering and special effects.