Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, James Frain, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Mark Povinelli
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer(s): Richard LaGravanese, Sara Gruen (novel)
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Original Score: James Newton Howard
Running Time: 120 Mins.
Water For Elephants marks Robert Pattinson’s first foray into romance following a little known franchise you may have heard of where he played a vampire with a tendency for a girl who is largely deemed unsuitable at best and unobtainable at worst. Here he takes on the role of a young man who, much like his Twilight counterpart, falls for a woman who is also unsuitable at best and unobtainable at worst, this is where any similarities end however, Water For Elephants you see is a much more classic romance, classic in the sense that it is the kind of sweeping epic that was common in Hollywood’s Golden Era, in fact everything is present and correct bar, surprisingly in these days of bloated blockbusters, an overlong running time.
When a film is bookended with an elderly person recounting some significant event from their youth it is inevitable that comparisons with Titanic are drawn, especially when the central drive is a romance of lovers separated by social status and particularly when you know the film will culminate in a disaster of sorts (even if it doesn’t quite hit the tragic heights of Titanic‘s fateful voyage, though in all fairness few things do). So now I have the comparisons cleared up we can move on to assessing Water For Elephants on it’s own merits, and they are indeed plentiful. As mentioned before this is a streamlined affair, yes there is a bounty of class (and little known) support actors bringing everything from laughs to villainous heavies but none are dwelt upon too much, they add just enough to give a real sense of circus life circa 1930’s, whether it be the trapeze artists, strippers, animal trainers, clowns or midgets, all the bases are entertainingly and sufficiently covered.
Suffice to say the bulk of the film focuses on a love triangle (something Pattinson must be familiar with after Twilight) between runaway-vet Jacob (Pattinson), trapeze artist Marlena (Witherspoon) and the villain of the piece August (Waltz) who also happens to be Marlena’s wife and the owner/ringmaster of the Benzini Brothers circus. Thankfully just as much time is spent building up the relationship between August and Jacob, acting as sometime father figure, sometime brutal and erratic maniac who doesn’t think twice about flinging employees off a moving train or beating an elephant with an iron rod. It is in the realtionship between the men that the film truly becomes alive, Waltz is as always a magnetic presence and can do the unhinged yet charming thing in his sleep (one suspects), but he is more than simply coasting and hints at August’s schziphrenic nature without ever being OTT, yes he can be decidedly brutal but it is never anything other than scarily convincing.
What Waltz lacks in sbtlety Pattinson makes up for, many critisize the man for showing little range though I have defended this since his excellent turn in last years Remember Me, yes he does tortured souls well but there is more than mere moodiness and wallowing, the guy has charm and has become a heart-throb for more than simply looking good. There is an element of the love sick puppy in Jacob, there has to be for the romance to work, but he is also nt without a sense of humour and handles the lighter moments with ease, far from being a joker he can smile convincingly and be warm and likeable, a key attribute for any film star. He holds his own against Waltz and allows the man to grandstand but in his phisical performance can match the man blow for blow (often literally).
Slightly less engaging is the romance, it may be the age difference but Witherspoon and Pattinson just don’t gel as well as you may expect despite the 1930’s glow they give off, yes they look the part but chemistry is somewhat lacking, not enough to make it dull but just enought to stop Water For Elephants being a real classic of its genre. Thankfully in director Lawrence (who previously made two very dark efforts with I Am Legend and Constantine) we have a man who knows his material, directed with the panache you would want from a circus-set, depression-era story there is magic in the cinematic sense that will transport you to Hollywood’s Golden Age of cinema…so “they DO make ’em like they used to” after all.
Like a blast from the past Water For Elephants displays all the hallmarks of a “classic” Hollywood production, handsome couple, dastardly (but very well acted) villain, sweeping vistas and a charming but intriguing setting lit with the glow of the “Golden Age”, high praise indeed.