If I had a quarter for every time the Hollywood filmmakers have taken an outstanding book and turned it into a less than mediocre motion picture by needlessly altering or distorting the storyline, I would be living somewhere sunny, warm, and DRY. Therefore, it’s always a pleasant surprise when the movie moguls do justice to the book upon which a film is based, and that is the case in “Water for Elephants,” a beautiful screen adaptation of Sara Gruen’s superbly written, bestselling historical novel of the same name.
“Water for Elephants” begins in the present when an old man named Jacob (Hal Holbrook) has just missed a performance of a circus, and the owner (Paul Schneider) takes him into his office while he tries to locate the rest home where the man lives. In the ensuing conversation, Jacob reveals that he had once been a part of the Benzini Bros. circus, which the owner describes as “…the most famous circus disaster of all time.” And at the owner’s invitation, Jacob recounts his experience via a flashback
The year is 1931, and a young Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is sitting for his final examinations at Cornell University, where he has been studying to become veterinarian. But he never finishes the test because one of the school authorities notifies him that both his parents have been killed in a car accident. Because Jacob’s father had poorly managed his own veterinary practice, Jacob is left penniless. With nowhere to go, he hops aboard a train that turns out to be carrying the Benzini Bros. Circus.
He ultimately lands a manure-shoveling job with the circus, and although the work is crappy, it’s better than nothing. Shortly after he begins his employment, Jacob notices a beautiful woman performing with the horses that prompts him to ask, “Who’s the woman who works with the horses?”
And one of the workers replies, “That ain’t no woman. That’s the boss’s wife, and she don’t talk to nobody, and you don’t talk to her.”
Her name is Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and she is married to August (Christopher Waltz), the flamboyantly volatile owner with a horrifying mean streak that may be the result of schizophrenia. When Jacob diagnoses one of Marlena’s horses with a terminal injury and when August learns that he has had training as a veterinarian, he decides that Jacob will be an invaluable asset to the circus. And thus we have the beginning of a predictable but fascinating love triangle.
August realizes that the circus is in deep financial trouble, and the only way he can figure out to save it is to find some kind of a monumental attraction that will pack crowds in wherever the show plays. His answer is to purchase Rosie, a 9000-pound elephant that stands almost nine feet tall. With the gorgeous Marlena perched upon her, Rosie indeed becomes the featured attraction, and people flock to see her perform. Despite his newfound success, however, August’s sadistic mistreatment of Rosie alienates him from both Marlena and Jacob, and he soon realizes that the two of them are inevitably attracted to one another.
Set against the consistently intriguing background of a circus, “Water for Elephants” offers an outstanding combination of drama, history, action, and romance. It’s one of those rare films in which we become so involved with the characters that we really care about them and feel as if we know them personally, and this is a testament to the fine performances turned in by an outstanding cast. At the heart of the film is the developing relationship between Jacob and Marlena, and in production notes director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”) addressed this.
“The relationship between Marlena and Jacob that we built in the movie is really one of my favorite things. It’s a really nice slow burn. I think Jacob falls instantly for Marlena’s beauty, magic, strength and confidence. But Marlena is guarded; she doesn’t trust many people. Jacob starts to break through that wall, and he becomes someone quite unexpected for Marlena in her world. I think she falls for his morality.”
When Marlena first meets Jacob, she is trapped in a marriage that she really doesn’t know how to escape because August took her in and made her a star. When Jacob tells her, “There’s a better life that’s meant for you,” she replies, “I’m a star attraction. Out there I’ve got nothing.”
Academy Award winner Witherspoon is perfectly cast in the role of Marlena because she really looks the part of a glamorous circus performer from yesteryear, and being the consummate actress that she is, she diligently prepared for her role by studying about circuses and then attending “circus school” to learn how to work with the animals. Three months before the filming began, Witherspoon spent a lot of time working with Tai (the elephant that plays Rosie), and in the production notes she spoke about the experience.
(We worked) “…on everything from her lifting me in the air to me learning how to flip backwards on Tai. I’m not very big, and Tai is not very small. I had to learn how to step on her trunk and hurdle myself on top of her. It was very complicated, but I finally got it. It was one of my greatest accomplishments!”
Because of her dedicated preparation, Witherspoon looks completely at home with all the animals, including the massive Tai. As she has done in her other films, Witherspoon doesn’t merely play a part; she becomes it.
Oscar winner Waltz also contributes a stellar performance as August. The circus owner has an incredibly short fuse, and when something sets him off, he completely snaps. You literally can see this happen in Waltz’s eyes. He brilliantly goes from being charming to terrifying in the blink of an eye.
Working with two Academy Award winners might have been a bit intimidating for Pattinson, and while he may not yet be in a league with either Witherspoon or Waltz, it’s fair to say that he holds his own in the film and succeeds in making Jacob both a likable and appealing character.
In addition the fine acting and the great story, “Water for Elephants” (It gets an impressive nine.) boasts terrific costumes and sets and some marvelous scenes under the big top. It’s one of the best period films I’ve seen in a long time, and if you don’t fall in love with that 9,000-pound pachyderm, you need to make an appointment with the Wizard of Oz for a heart.