5 May 2011


Water for Elephants arrives in cinemas with the Robert Pattinson train still rolling along. I hate to ascribe locomotion to a bloke so utterly incapable of motion or emotion in his films, but hey, teenage girls will have their figures of hype. Pattinson is just one of a number of elements that come together to be better than they really should be, but he's easily the weakest link.

The story is framed a la Titanic, with nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski telling the story of the biggest circus disaster in history to the manager of a modern day circus. Then we flash back to 1931, as the fresh faced but recently orphaned Jacob runs away from the final exams of his Ivy League education in veterinary science to hop on board a train that houses the Benzini Brothers' Circus. He's soon recruited by August, the ruthless and charismatic boss, to act as a vet for the menagerie of animals on board.

In a way, it serves Water for Elephants best to compare it to a circus itself. The director is Francis Lawrence, more known for his work on Constantine and I Am Legend than for nostalgic romantic dramas like this one. The cast includes the aforementioned Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon as romantic leads, and Christoph Waltz, the Oscar-winning villain from Inglourious Basterds as August. This carnival line-up mostly works very well.

To begin, let's separate this one paragraph from the rest of the film, simply because the film mostly works. And also because this paragraph is about what doesn't work, and that's Robert Pattinson. For starters, he's miscast, in a role that plays like it belongs to an older man than Pattinson. Then again, he can't be totally absolved of blame, because as in Remember Me and the Twilight films, he's incapable of evoking any emotion that doesn't look vaguely like he's trying to remember his lines. The guy is a rubbish actor, simply enough, and whatever the contribution of his star power towards getting the film made, it doesn't counteract how much he pulls the film down.

However, he's also the reason I'm being so positive about the rest of the film, which is so buoyant that even his dead weight cannot sink it. His woodenness does make the forbidden love aspect, between his character and Witherspoon's circus wife and perpetual passenger, Marlena, slightly unbelievable. They're made to look good together by the gorgeous cinematography, but there's nothing beneath the surface- that's probably one of the greatest illusions in this circus.

The star attraction is, as expected, Christoph Waltz. As ringleader August, he is the most charismatic and well-developed villains I can remember since... well, Hans Landa, the Jew Hunter. Apparently, in the book on which the film is based, a plot point is made of the fact that August is a paranoid schizophrenic. This isn't overtly stated in the film, but you can tell Waltz took it on anyway. He's the aggressor in an abusive relationship- not with his wife, at first, but against practically everything with which he comes into contact. By turns, he is charming and gentle and winsome, but he'll stab you in the gut at the tip of a hat.

Waltz gives my favourite performance of the year so far, and you can see him holding the entire big top up all the way through the film, even seeming to try and up Pattinson's game in every scene they share. He's certainly one part of the compelling storyline, which drew me in and urged me onwards. However, the Titanic-style bookends, with the wonderful Hal Holbrook playing the elder Jacob, makes promises about a tragic denouement, and the film can't quite keep those promises in the final event. By that stage, I didn't mind as much- it kept it fresh when it could have been predictable, and the only real loss is in the way that August is short-changed by the end.

On a more thematic level, the film reawakened my interest in prohibition-era America. I wrote an essay on the period in college, and I like to watch films set around that time in American history. What's fresh about this one though is that it's not about prohibition or the Depression, per se. It's not The Untouchables or Cinderella Man, but it is a film set in that time, and is informed by that historical context all the way through.

Water for Elephants is held back by Robert Pattinson's performance in a way that's really sort of sad. He drags my rating of the film to the low end of four stars out of five, just by being there and being terrible. That still makes it a four out of five film though, and I recommend it to anyone who misses the kind of romantic drama Hollywood used to make. The romance may be the lesser part of it, but Christoph Waltz's performance and the rich and visual direction assure that it's more engaging than what first meets the eye. 

Water for Elephants is now playing in selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Water for Elephants, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

NerdyRachelMay said...

Apparently Robert Pattinson doesn't like washing his hair unless he is filming.

I've read it often has an "odd smell and strange green sheen".