Water For Elephants review

It stars Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, and a massive elephant called Rosie. It's Water For Elephants, and here's our review...

Sometimes, a great villain can make a movie, bringing a much-needed edge to what could be a forgettable piece of cinema. That’s certainly the case with Water For Elephants, an otherwise gentle romantic drama whose structure owes a little to James Cameron’s 90s blockbuster, Titanic.

Like Cameron’s film, it’s a period weepie told in flashback, a swooning tale of love and tragedy, set against the backdrop of a 30s circus rather than a doomed ship on its maiden voyage.

Where Titanic was let down somewhat by its one-dimensional, moustache-twiddling villain (played by Billy Zane), Water For Elephants benefits from a startling, nuanced performance from the great Christoph Waltz.

Robert Pattinson is the nominal lead as Jacob, a young veterinary student whose parents’ sudden and tragic deaths force him out of college and into a travelling circus. There, he meets friendly old gent Camel (Jim Norton), cruel ringmaster August (Waltz) and his frosty horse-training wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

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A businessman brutal enough to throw his acts from a moving train if finances dictate, it’s the strength of Waltz’s performance that lifts Water For Elephants out of the realms of comfy Sunday afternoon drama. Despite his initial misgivings, related in a surprisingly tense introductory scene around a card table, August is eventually won over by Jacob’s forthright attitude and way with animals, and gives the young man a job as the circus’ live-in vet.

Matters are complicated when Jacob and Marlena embark on a furtive romance, however, and the arrival of an obstinate bull elephant called Rosie soon brings out the worst of August’s violent temper, a temper that could soon close down the circus for good.

Water For Elephants’ romantic situations are, it has to be said, often mind-numbingly predictable, and the movie packs a far greater punch as a period drama, away from the doleful gazes shared by Pattinson and Witherspoon. Director Francis Lawrence has a great eye for detail, and the film’s depiction of a circus struggling to make ends meet in the Great Depression is often extremely vivid.

You get a real sense of the claustophobia of life aboard a circus train, as well as the wonder audiences would have felt while watching the performers working their magic in the big top. Lawrence and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto give these moments visual flair, and only occasionally drift into the realm of rose-tinted nostalgia.

As a leading man, Robert Pattinson undeniably has charisma, but an unnervingly meagre range of facial expressions, offering the camera the same wan look whether his character’s supposed to be burning with passion or seething with rage. Pattinson isn’t entirely at fault here – in comparison to the film’s other characters, Jacob seems a little under written, to the point where we soon know more about the elephant’s interests and temperament (the 54-year-old Rosie has a liking for alcohol and pale young actors) than the lead himself.

Writer Richard LaGravenese, adapting a novel by Sara Gruen, seems far more interested in the characters and events that surround Jacob, and fortunately, the film’s shot and acted well enough to accommodate this.Water For Elephants owes a considerable debt to its colourful supporting cast, which includes Hal Holbrook as the aged Jacob (an actor who possesses a far greater dynamic range than Pattinson, it has to be said), and Jim Norton as the gentle booze hound Camel. It’s a little sad to see the great Ken Foree (Dawn Of The Dead) in a stock henchman role that requires almost no talking at all, though.

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The real revelation of Water For Elephants is, as mentioned earlier, Christoph Waltz. His character burns through the screen, and Waltz lends his sadistic ringmaster antagonist a startling sense of depth. Given that August spends certain parts of the film doing dreadfully cruel things to animals, it’s remarkable just how sympathetic Waltz manages to make this otherwise despicable character. His violence is carried out in a mist of rage, and his later remorse brilliantly counterbalances his earlier atrocities.Water For Elephants is a well-made film, lifted immeasurably by the quality of its production and cast. The elephant gives the humans a run for their money (with the help of some surprisingly good CGI), and Reese Witherspoon’s quite good as an elegant, brow-beaten wife, but it’s Waltz who walks away with the film, glowering at the audience as he does so.


3 out of 5