Water for Elephants. What a title. Baring in mind that I had never read or even heard of the book, if I had I would have thought it was a some kind of Water Aid campaign…for Elephants. Regardless it’s a good title. It certainly had me intrigued and for good reason, unlike this stonker hook.
So what was I expecting, and did I waste 2 hours of my life expecting it?. Well yes and no, not really…kind of.
Picture the scene if you will, beautifully shot, under the golden tint reminiscent of the flash back scenes in BIG FISH and The Cider House Rules, this film looks the colour of the world I imagined F.Scott Fitzgerald to live in. It’s like a documentation of the other side of the height of the Circus‘ success. Like an aesthetic antidote to Cecil B. DeMille‘s The Greatest Show in World. It’s still so pretty to watch which in this instance does it a huge favour. The other is the list of actors attached. The always lovely Reese Witherspoon, brilliantly villainous Christopher Waltz and dear Hal Holbrook (added to my list of dream Grandfathers above Michael Gambon and Rip Torn between Morgan Freeman and Sidney Poitier .)
Set during the Great Depression, young Jacob has just gained entry to study Veterinary science at Cornell. It’s a picturesque scene that immediately has you wondering where the Elephant, Water, Reese and Circus come in to it. “Oh he’s a vet…so he’s what, going to graduate and look after circus animals?” Well yes, kind of, only he doesn’t have a choice he’s more or less forced drop out of school and run away with the circus on account of his parents dying in a horrific car accident. With their lives goes his home and any money they had invested in to his education. Aww. It’s not an unfamiliar subtext in a movie, but you genuinely feel for Jacob, and R-Patz does well to fix those large Disney like eyes in despair and this may be what The Notebook was for Ryan Gosling and Charlie St Cloud was for Zac Efron, a right of passage from the hype built around his career as a teen heart-throb to a solid actor and romantic lead.
His luck doesn’t really bloom though, he just learns fast to make do with his lot by joining an exhausted travelling circus as a vet. That’s when we’re introduced to the cruel ringmaster and circus owner August (Waltz) and his beautiful wife and star act Marlena (a beautiful Witherspoon aesthetically harnessing the old Hollywood graces of a silent cinema actress). The real star is of course the Elephant Rosie, a beautiful beast that is worth seeing on the big screen against such an intricate background. She is divine, and it becomes clear almost immediately that like the travelling circus, she is old, abandoned in a time of financial uncertainty (no one is coming out to pay for the circus any more) she is a beautiful spectacle, a large almost otherworldly entity that has lost its spark in amongst a world that find it difficult to dream big. More over August is relentless in squeezing the joy out of it in favour of wanting to control and harness it – a mad man yes, a bitter and most likely depressive, he takes to attacking Rosie to get it to do what he wants it to do, we learn early on that August is the Law and he takes to it with a vile ‘Elephant goad’.
One scene in particular had me wailing when the crazed circus owner pursues an already frightened and wounded Rosie shutting the train door behind him we only hear the collision between his beats and her skin heightened by her cries. Unfortunately, this is perhaps the best acted scene throughout the film. While Waltz’s August is pantomime worthy tyrannous, he is never truly scary. He has issues yes, it’s clear to see from his first scene that he is a formidable character who will perhaps spell the end of either lead actors. However instead of seeing his evil really play out when it should have during some key moments, we get only a slight simmer of jealous side eye glances and the occasional fist shake despite being told about his psychotic episodes that lead to throwing problematic circus members off his moving train. Nice.The other problem comes in the form of the two leads. Marlena and Jacob are clearly meant to be dangerously in love but Pattinson and Witherspoon had absolutely no chemistry on camera. It was almost awkward. We know he can do it, check Twilight. We know Reese can do it, heck she did it in that crappy Just Like Heaven movie with Mark Ruffalo. So what went wrong? Who can say, maybe it was the direction, or a personal contempt between the actors. Maybe it was the fact that R-Patz played Witherspoon’s son in Vanity Fair. Essentially its meant to be a love story and yet there was none of that sickly -i-cant-live-without-you even if it means the death of me feeling on camera.
Independently Witherspoon takes on the role of Marlena timidly, almost like she just rocked up on set but didn’t really care to immerse herself in the story. She looks beautiful. Beyond that she’s kind of boring and looks bored. Pattinson is good, seriously he’s only going to get better with each movie and thank god he’s doing something outside of vampire trash now before its too late and his core audience grow up and leave him behind with the likes of actors like, I dunno someone like, Stephen Dorff (with the exception of the now, bless him) The point is he’s still young, and he’s trying and faring well. It’s only when in the presence of Witherspoon that he falters trying too hard to act in love but coming off looking like he’s afraid to look the multi-million blockbuster actress in the eye let alone share the screen with her.
The side characters are painfully disregarded when there was clearly so much to work from by way of building on Jacobs relationship with what is essentially his new family. They are merely ushered in and out of scenes to usually to hold Jacob back as he and August continuously come to blows, or, to provide a narrative to the audience in case he or she is unsatisfied with the lack of content provided on camera.
Aesthetically pleasing, but not given the breathtaking menagerie it deserves to make it stunning. The story is there but the character development and interaction means it plays out half-heartedly and weak. Alas I’m glad I saw it once, but like Benjamin Button, I’ll probably wait for it to premier on the TV before I even think about watching it again, and even then It will probably be for background noise.