Water for Elephants

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.

2 replies »

  1. Franz,

    I love how you always approach movies looking for something to like about them. In that sense, and no doubt in many others, you are a much more generous viewer than I can ever hope to be.

    I found pretty much every frame in this film not containing Christoph Waltz in Hans Landa mode to be either stultifyingly dull and/or uintentionally hilarious. The whole thing fell apart for me in the very first scene, with the trite framing device of the otherwise lovely Hal Holbrook telling the story in retrospect.

    I think the film failed as a period drama, it failed as a romance, and it failed – spectacularly – at making me care about the titular elephant(s). Unlike you, however, I don’t necessarily think spending more time with the animal would have solved anything. To my mind, the film already had too many shots of the passively tortured (mentally as well as physically, or so I think the film wanted us to believe) elephant, in which the lingering, intimate lens ceded any storytelling capacity to our general sympathy toward animals, which got tiresome after a while.

    So, yeah. I hated it. But you made an interesting case for the oppsite viewpoint.

    • Jorgen,

      Wow! We really disagree on this one. I admit, I was reluctant to see it in the first place because I had some doubts whether there is much to be told (in an interesting way) about a love story that takes place in a circus. And, yeah, Robert Pattinson doesn’t excite me that much. BUT! I decided to be open-minded the moment the DVD is in the player and, to my surprise, I enjoyed a good portion of it.

      I found myself caring for the central couple. I kept wondering if what they have is doomed in the first place. And I really liked looking at the elephant (lol). Waltz, I think, is the weakest link in terms of performance. You’re right to point out that he does a Hans Landa sort of acting which annoyed me at times. If anything, this movie made me question his range. Still, when Waltz does hit good notes, he’s effective in playing the character.

      Hmm, you might have a point about the elephant not necessarily requiring more time in front of the camera. Maybe I just need a trip to the zoo stat!

Feel free to leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.