Stars deliver in circus film

2011-04-18 00:00

PERHAPS the biggest question about this film, set in a struggling circus in 1931, is: can Robert Pattinson act, can he portray a living — as opposed to an undead — character?

I think the answer is yes. Pattinson (the object of millions of teenage dreams as vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight series) plays Jacob Jankowski, who washes up in Benzini’s circus as the Depression enters its darkest phase. He has not quite finished his veterinary degree at Cornell University, but his polish and willingness to stand up to the circus’s autocratic boss, August Rosenblum (Christoph Waltz), catches the eye of both the boss and the boss’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star of the show.

To Rosenblum, Jacob offers an advantage over the more famous Ringling Brothers’ circus: do they have their own vet? Because this is a circus from a bygone age, complete with half-starved and toothless lions and tigers in tiny cages being fed half-rotten meat.

And it’s not only the meat that is rotten: August is a violent autocrat whose solution to a cashflow crisis is to toss surplus employees off the moving circus train to live or die depending on where they fall.

However, Water for Elephants is not really a sociological document about circus life, but a love story. Jacob is smitten by the tough, glamourous Marlena the second he sees her ride around the ring on a white horse, and is half-fascinated by the relationship between her and August while trying to wrench her from his grip. August can see this and forces Jacob to watch them at close quarters, inviting him to join them in his plush train carriage for dinner and stand by while he manhandles his wife, and later, while he mistreats the elephant he buys as a new star attraction.

The conclusion, hinted at right in the beginning — when the story is introduced by the extremely elderly Jacob — is pretty obvious.

Waltz is compelling as Rosenblum, captivated by the glamour of his undertaking and his star, but all too aware of the grimy reality, a flamboyant, vicious man. However, it’s rather close to his turn as a Nazi nutter in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, so he must be starting to wonder if there’s a place for him in Hollywood that doesn’t require him to chew the scenery. Witherspoon is of course the definition of trouper. She’s not exactly pretty, all the better to play a glamourous, vulnerable, grimly determined woman.

However, Water for Elephants is one of those films that is perfectly pleasant while on the screen, with lovely costumes and dreamy Thirties music, but it makes you wonder, why? A film that stars a live elephant and assorted other animals, a train and a large cast isn’t cheap to make, but the result will fade quickly from most minds. Is the undertaking really worthwhile? ***

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