Water for Elephants (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jacob (Robert Pattinson) has a promising future despite the claws of The Great Depression running deep. But on the day of his final exam, critical to his certification as a veterinarian in Cornell University, his parents perish in a car accident. After finding out that his family’s house is to be taken by the bank, Jacob, an only child, hits the road and ends up aboard a train which houses Benzini Brothers performers. Camel (Jim Norton) decides to take Jacob under his wing and introduces him to the boss, August (Christoph Waltz), in hopes of getting him a job. August reluctantly hires Jacob as the circus vet but it is not long until the seventeen-year-old orphan notices August’s wife, blonde-haired Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star attraction of the circus.
Based on a novel by Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants,” directed by Francis Lawrence, is most engaging when Jacob and August play tug o’ war over Marlena. Even though they are husband and wife, August treats Marlena as his plaything, as something that he can brag about indirectly, shamelessly as they sit next to each other in front of company.
August is a smart but cruel man, especially to animals because he sees them as less than, simply a way of making money. When consumed with rage, he does not think twice about picking up a sharp object and stabbing the animals with it until the anger has been drained out of him and blood has been drained out of the animals. His cruelty to them causes a rift between he and his wife, who genuinely loves animals and appreciates their innate beauty and intelligence.
This is where Jacob comes in. Marlena sees a kindness in him and thinks it is refreshing. Over time, though reluctantly at first, their feelings for each other reach a peak and they realize that they need to get out of the circus before one or both of them ends up dead.
The dark romance, or ownership, between husband and wife and the dreamy romance between wife and younger man is handled with clarity and respect without sacrificing necessary implications for complexity. It is important that we do not see Jacob as someone who is out to destroy someone’s marriage. This is why it is necessary that the exposition be given ample time to be presented and unfold elegantly. We learn to see him as a man–not necessarily a physically strong man but a man with strong convictions–who might hold the key to Marlene’s cage. Pattinson holds his own against Waltz and Witherspoon.
The weakness of the film is not spending more time on Rosie the elephant. Aside from the important scene near the end, what exactly is the elephant’s relationship toward Marlena and Jacob? There is something about the animal, capable of understanding language, that is purposefully magical, almost human-like in its ability to understand emotions and intentions. More scenes are required to strengthen the connection between the elephant and the lovers.
“Water for Elephants,” based on the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, is beautifully made. I liked the techniques it employs during the circus performances like muffling the sounds just a little bit to emphasize the images and how they are accomplished without CGI. It does not forget that magic is found in what is real.