Saturday, 19 November 2011
Water For Elephants
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Reece Witherspoon, Christophe Waltz
By Alan Bacchus
The film version of the beloved literary historical romance novel of the same title may not have been scorching box office success, but the handsome production values and meat and potatoes themes of moral decency and ethics are refreshingly old school.
For much of the film it's delightfully cinematic and vividly dramatized. In the present day, an old man is left standing in the rain as a modern circus wraps up its tents to move on to the next city. The manager brings him out of the cold, and over a bottle of gin whisky we learn about his connection to the circus of old – the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show.
Flashing back to the Depression-era 1930s, we see Robert Pattinson as Jacob, a Cornell veterinarian student, distraught over the death of his parents, run away from life and accidentally join up with the Benzini circus. His knowledge of animals impresses the charismatic though slightly deranged owner, August (Waltz), and he gets a job. Once on the road he becomes enlightened to the squalor in which the carnies exist and the heinous maltreatment of the performing animals.
Jacob ingratiates himself with the leading lady of the show, Marlena (Witherspoon), as they bond over the animals, and, of course, their mutual good looks result in an unspoken romantic connection. But Marlena also happens to be the boss’s wife, and so there’s clearly some danger afoot. The more dire the financial situation of the circus gets, the more cruelly the animals are treated, to a point where Jacob must stand up for himself, the animals and Marlena.
For the first half, the film coasts on the vivid depiction of the idiosyncratic circus life. Francis Lawrence, who created the visually striking worlds in Constantine and I am Legend, creates another beautiful cinematic spectacle. Large-scale epic sequences, such as the arrival of the train or the raising of the tents, are breathtaking - the stuff of David Lean and other great epics of the '60s.
Robert Pattison is handsome and adequate as our naïve entry point into the seedy travelling entertainment business. His romance with Reece Witherspoon doesn’t smoulder, and Christophe Waltz only piggybacks on his cruel performance in Inglourious Basterds. Therefore, as the visual awe subsides, we’re left with predictable narrative plotting backed by a mostly dull love story.
Despite the narrative deficiencies, Water for Elephants is one of the most visually pleasing movies of the year. Terrence Malick’s shadow is cast over this aesthetic. The Midwestern prairie locale recalls the awe in Malick’s depiction of wheat fields in Days of Heaven. And the train cars that feature prominently in the background of many of the scenes recall the epic staging of the arrival of the wheat shuckers to Sam Shepard’s farm in Days.
For good and bad (mostly bad) there’s also a strong '90s feel to this. The use of the bookended story in the present – the old person reflecting on the adventures of his life, lost loves and the unpredictable journey of life – reeks of Titanic and other schmaltz fare from writers like Ron Bass (Snow Falling on Cedars), Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and Richard LaGravenese (Bridges of Madison County). In fact, the screenwriter here is none other than Mr. LaGravanese. Unfortunately, we live in different times, and this flavour doesn’t taste as sweet as it did back in those days. But Water for Elephants is still an admirable, under-appreciated, throwback film of sorts.
Water For Elephants is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.