Water for Elephants is film very much with it’s heart in the past. It plays like an old 1940s or ’30s melodrama with big stars and even bigger emotions. On that level, this is a highly enjoyable picture that, although formulaic, has a big heart.
Robert Pattinson, from the Twilight pictures, plays Jacob, a veterinary student whose life is thrown upside down with the death of his parents. He is left with no money and having to leave school, Jacob is forced to jump onto a passing train that happens to belong to the Benzini Brothers Circus.
Eventually Jacob becomes the circus’ vet, and then falls in love with the wife of the circus owner (Reese Witherspoon). The plot is very much the kind that would have been popular back during Hollywood’s Golden Era. It hits hard with very emotional scenes involving both the human characters and the animals. It also provides a great insight into circus life during the great depression. The emotional beats of the story are hit with a level of machine like precision that may leave some viewers cold if they aren’t swept up with the films story at the beginning but it will work for most.
The film is gorgeous to look at from all angles. The costumes by Jacqueline West perfectly capture the period and the circus, the art direction by David Crank is sumptuous and there are some stellar make-up effects here. All should be rewarded come Oscar time.
The big question with this picture is if Robert Pattinson is an effective leading man? For the most part he is, this more subdued character suits him better than the histrionics of Remember Me last year. He is charming leading man and a very likable hero. However, he does struggle with bringing some chemistry to his relationship with Reese Witherspoon.
Witherspoon does perfectly capture the kind of glamor you’d expect from a performer from this era. However, she does seem quite cold at times. The best performance in the film is that of Christoph Waltz as the circus owner August. He perfectly capture the many facets of this character, he is jovial at one moment and at the drop of hat turns into a psychopathic. It is a truly excellent performance, one of the best of the year so far.
Verdict: Water for Elephants is a enjoyable old fashioned melodrama that hits all of the right beats. Pattinson is a good leading man, but it’s Christoph Waltz as the villain that’ll leave you impressed.