“Water for Elephants” is a classically good romance with a period-piece vibe. The film’s title, which it takes from a book of the same name, is symbolic of the falsity in the main character’s life. But there’s nothing fake about the actual circus of a film director Francis Lawrence creates.
That tangible quality of ‘Water for Elephants” is part of its appeal. Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz all interact with physical, flesh and blood animals including the aforementioned elephant, and their personal interactions are real and simple enough to reach out and touch them.
In a day and age when modern romances can seem so stretched, this one is smart enough to convince us otherwise.
Pattinson plays Jacob, a Cornell student majoring in veterinary science in 1931. His parents are killed and the Depression leaves him homeless. He hops a train on his way to anywhere and finds himself in the midst of a traveling circus. Jacob meets and falls in love with Marlena (Witherspoon), the show’s star attraction and the wife of the strict and ruthless circus ringleader August (Waltz).
The three form a mutual bond and friendship around the acquisition of an elephant for their show, and Jacob is responsible for training it so Marlena can ride it. Simply watching them perform with these animals is a charm, and the camera often makes it a lovely experience with colorful yet soft lighting as it slowly and tranquilly dances and twirls like an acrobat.
The real heart of the film however comes from Christoph Waltz as August. “Water for Elephants” would like for us to believe that his character is a one-dimensional, cruel taskmaster, but Waltz imbues in the character a subtle complexity. His conflicted but commanding performance recalls his work as Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds.”
Witherspoon is good and quite beautiful on-screen. Pattinson looks good too, but I’m still convinced he’s a weak leading man. He may be the weak link in the cast, but his angst is certainly not played up to the point that it’s distracting.
While the story itself can push the realm of believability, the dialogue, written by Richard LaGravenese of “The Notebook,” is strong and convincing and ultimately adds to the film’s period vibe.
“Water for Elephants” isn’t exactly the greatest show on Earth, but it’ll do until the summer comes.