Water for Elephants is a romantic drama film directed by Francis Lawrence. It is based on Sara Gruen.novel which is based on the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus disaster and parallels the biblical story of Jacob in the Book of Genesis.
We meet an elderly man named Jacob Jankowski (played by Hal Holbrook and later to be played by Robert Pattinson) on a rainy night as he stands in the parking lot of a closed circus. Two circus workers are quick to assist him and bring him inside. After attempting to find the nursing home responsible for Jacob, the worker is soon mesmerized by the story Jacob begins to unfold involving his time with the travelling Benzini Brothers circus which has the dubious honour of hosting the greatest circus disaster of all time. Soon we are transported to 1931, where whackiness ensues………………….
Water for Elephants is basically Titanic at the circus, but not as emotionally crippling thank god. Titanic lite. We flash backward to the 1930’s and meet a young man as he falls in love with the star attraction of a circus, Marlena (played by Reese Witherspoon). However, the star is already married to the ring-master, August (played brilliantly by Inglourious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz) leading to a love triangle facing a larger disaster.
Unsurprisingly Water for Elephants does not have the same production value of James Cameron’s blockbuster however it still looks lovely: the production design of the train, especially rooms decked out with cigars, cards, booze and opulent bedrooms makes you want to host a cocktail party. The layout of the train itself mirrors Titanic’s class system: the bottom of the circus rung is in the last carriage, increasing in circus status up to the top of the carriage which holds the ring-leader and his wife. The movie even has a “I’m the king of the world” moment on top of the carriages as it flies through depression era America (albeit not as cheesy).
Christoph Waltz gives another great performance. Christoph’s August can be absolutely charming but then can change flawlessly into a frightening brute. More than just the film’s villain, Christoph shares the pain and frustration of being a leader of a business facing harsh times, and brings an agonising empathy to his creation. Robert Pattinson proves again that he is an actor with chops, capable when given the chance. He also makes a dashing lead. Reese Witherspoon however, is no Kate Winslet. Her ‘look’ did not captivate me. Instead of the captivating angel that Jacob narrates to us, we see a thin, gaunt and mean looking Reese. This appearance was probably spot on for depression era America, especially for a character given such a troubling back-story. However I was not empathetic with Jacob in his feelings for her, and therefore did not believe the love between the two leads. Unfortunately this is the common consensus among film reviewers.
In relation to production value, after a great 2 acts, the third is a surprising let down. The circus disaster is in no way as bit a spectacle that you would have been led to believe. This may have been due to the production budget, however this is quite different from a production’s value: - value can be added in choice framing and lighting techniques. The first Matrix had surprisingly few ‘special effects’ when compared to its bloated sequels and the first Bad Boys was so budget conscious that every single explosion shot had to count or be discarded if it did not work. Jerry Bruckheimer’s The Rock’s production value was shown in its comic-book lighting and framing.
For some reason, some scenes in Elephants were also shot extremely basically, failing to capture the true grandness of some scenes. For example, the circus performances are played during the day, under a low ceiling-tent in front of a sparse audience even though we see a swarm of people entering the circus beforehand. When the circus and its various behind-the-curtains working-class shenanigans is shown at night, it looks absolutely beautiful, evoking my memories of the Adelaide Fringe festival: bold reds, flame and wine. Reese on top of her beautiful elephant, Rose (heh? Heh?) looks flat instead of awe-inspiring, and there are moments when lead characters heads are also chopped out of the frame.
Conversely, there are some fantastic shots, hence the confusion. Characters on top of the train looking at the inherent beauty of the country they are flying through and also who’s events they are trying to escape from, cabaret like set ups at night providing a fly-on-the-wall showing the inner social life of a circus, and a wonderful film-noir shot of Reese escaping a romantic interlude in n 1930’s American back-alley. Such beautiful scenes beg the question why other sections fall so flat.
I really wanted to like this movie. Its inexplicable faults are only obvious once compared to its strengths. Elephants is pushed above a solid drama due to its classic production design and the great interplay between the 3 leads: - Christoph Waltz trumps Billy Zane 3.5 out of 5 elephants.
Luke McWilliams June 2011