'Water for Elephants' Dazzles Onscreen

as featured in the suffolk voice


When life gives you lemons you make lemonade, and when a four-ton elephant named Rosie is parched she will drink it.  

It is charming moments like this that exist only in the world of the spectacular Benzini Brothers Circus, which serves as the backdrop to the gripping 1931 set drama "Water for Elephants."

The story begins, however, outside of the big top when veterinarian student Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) becomes orphaned after his parents perish in a car accident. Left penniless, homeless, and without a college degree, he wanders in abandonment looking for a safe haven. 

Refuge finally comes in the form of the Benzini Brothers locomotive. Once onboard Jacob is swept up into a whimsical new world as the show’s new animal caretaker but it’s the dazzling star act, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who really captures his attention. It is soon made evident, however, that behind all the smiles and sequined costumes lay a grimy wasteland of escalating brutality executed by the circus’ hot-tempered ringmaster, August (Christoph Waltz), who just so happens to be Marlena’s abusive husband. 

Under his reign adversaries are tossed from the train to their death, cruel animal beatings are routine and abusing his wife is an after dinner custom. The only saving grace is Rosie, the circus’ newly acquired pachyderm with a personality far more charismatic than her human costars.

That’s not to say that Pattinson, Witherspoon or Waltz are simply sleepwalking through their roles though.

As the emotionally conflicted Jacob, Pattinson effectively navigates his scenes with more emotional depth than is permitted from his most notable work as the brooding heartthrob in the "Twilight" film franchise.  

A lesser actress may have let the sumptuous costumes do the acting but Witherspoon manages to overcome any such obstacle offering up a subdued, albeit impactful, performance. Without fluttering an eyelash, Witherspoon's Marlena attracts the attention of Pattinson’s Jacob almost immediately and establishes the films romantic arc. The duo may not be Bogart and Bergman, but their chemistry certainly works.  

Christoph Waltz pulls off the film’s most striking performance as August, creating yet another engaging villain following his award-winning turn as the Jew Hunter in 2009’s "Inglourious Basterds."   

Based on Sara Gruen’s 2006 bestselling novel of the same name, "Water for Elephants" is properly adapted from book to film by director Francis Lawrence. Despite a limited film repertoire Lawrence’s years working as a music video director lend a hand in helping the story’s explosive plot unfold at an efficient pace.  

Stylistically speaking the film could have benefitted from a showman director like Baz Luhrmann. Then again, his avant-garde aesthetic may have stripped away some of the necessary bleakness that Lawrence imbues on-screen. 

In the end, "Water for Elephants" is a beautifully constructed story that is entertaining, emotionally gripping and one trip to the circus that is well worth the price of admission.