In this long-awaited adaptation of Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel, Twilight’s Robert Pattinson gets a chance to shed his sparkly vampire persona and play a romantic lead with a pulse. The change suits him. As Jacob Jankowski, the orphaned veterinary student who joins a circus during the hard days of the Depression, Pattinson gets the opportunity to do more than brood and look pasty, and he makes the most of it. He grapples with real adult emotions, gets in a few fistfights, woos a beautiful woman instead of a sulky teen, contemplates murder and, yes, frequently flashes a movie-star grin. Most impressive, he prevents any of his formidable co-stars — two Oscar winners and a several-ton pachyderm — from walking away with the film.
The novel is split into two narratives, one set in the present by an elderly Jacob, the other by his younger self. Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) wisely dispenses with most of the former. Played by Hal Holbrook, the older Jacob — light years more spry than the fragile 90something languishing in a nursing home in the book — appears only at the film’s beginning and end as a narrative device. The decision to cut the material is a sound one and doesn’t drain the film’s finale of much of its sentiment. Jacob admits that he has lived a “big life,” and choosing to focus on the most interesting part of it puts Water for Elephants off to a good start.
Jacob jumps into his fate almost by accident; his parents died the day of his final exam at Cornell, but as they left him nothing, he has a notion to head to the city and seek employment. Instead, he impulsively hops aboard the Benzini Brothers’ circus train, where he’s apprehended immediately, threatened — and then put to work shoveling manure. His first day with the circus amazes him. He marvels at the speed at which the big top is raised (given the financially teetering Benzini Brothers, it’s more grimy than majestic, but Jacob’s eye is inexperienced). He spies a lovely blond working with horses. He’s almost dumped off the train by the circus’ owner and ringmaster, a disdainful fellow called August (the terrific Christoph Waltz, forever doomed to play bad guys in American movies since his Inglourious Basterds Oscar win). Then Jacob lets slip that he studied to be a vet; suddenly August is all smiles, and Jacob has a new job.
Naturally, the blond (Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line) is Marlena, August’s wife, and while August seems a fair enough guy at first, his cruel, jealous streak soon surfaces, especially after the circus acquires Rosie the elephant. August needs her to be a box-office draw and is not afraid to beat her viciously until she obeys him. His raging instability with Rosie acts as a pointed example of what might happen to a young man foolish enough to fall in love with Marlena.
Water for Elephants deftly captures the romantic idea of running away to join the circus and the uglier details of what that life entailed in 1931 (the big cats eat spoiled entrails, because the circus can’t afford goats; the boss has thugs toss you out of your bunk if he doesn’t want to pay you). Gruen’s novel is more ruthless in its depiction of the callous treatment of animals, but more brutality might have been too much to stomach in a film that’s essentially a romance; this Water for Elephants has been slightly prettied up for mass appeal. No matter. With the Benzini Brothers Circus, everything is part of the illusion. Through our modern eyes, the operation looks ragtag, dingy, distasteful. Through the eyes of Prohibition-era, dirt-poor families, though, it’s magical, a brief flight from reality. So enjoy the illusion; Water for Elephants is an engaging cinematic escape.