Set in the American depression of the 1930s, this big-screen adaptation of Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel may be sumptuously filmed, but unfortunately it is yet another example of a film that is gorgeous to look at but ultimately dead from within.
The film is bookended by an old man called Jacob telling the story of his life to the manager of a circus, and the main part of the running time is a flashback to when he was a handsome young lad (Robert Pattinson) about to start a career as a vet. But when he gets the news his parents have died in a car crash, and spent all their money on his tuition fees for Cornell University, he sets out to take on the world by himself.
Before long he hops aboard a train which turns out to be a travelling circus, and is hired as a stable boy. After a while his veterinary skills become known, and the circus’s charismatic, but quietly frightening, boss August (Christoph Waltz) hires him as the company’s vet. After some disagreements, August eventually trusts Jacob enough to let him be a part of the circus’s star feature – a colossal elephant named Rosie.
But Rosie isn’t the only female Jacob has eyes for. He rather likes the boss’s wife (Reese Witherspoon) who performs with the elephant onstage. When she’s not on top of the big grey pachyderm, she’s flirting with our leading man. They have some unsubtle romantic moments, and the volatile August gets pissed off. All the sexual tension between the two romantic leads inevitably builds up into a plan to runaway together.
Robert Pattinson, taking a break from his fang-tastic outings in Twilight, is actually very good as a lead actor, although his character is so tired and rundown I fear those who go to see the film because of his sex appeal will be disappointed. Witherspoon is also fine, but her performance doesn’t light up the screen the way it did in her last period outing Walk the Line (the role for which she won an Oscar). Christoph Waltz would have been a sensation if we hadn’t seen his performance before, as it is almost identical to his brilliant turn in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
The film’s biggest problem comes down to the romance. We don’t feel any passion, desperation, love or anguish while watching the leads play out their little affair. It’s very hard to care if Waltz’s August discovers them or not, and the moments of elevation or intimate activity are so clumsily handled that any life Pattinson or Witherspoon bring to their roles is promptly stamped out.
The most troublesome aspect of the picture is that it still delights in the exploitation of animals, and lovingly harks back to a day when they were controlled and manipulated so the audience could laugh and gasp at them. The subject of animal cruelty is rightly dealt with and condemned as heinous, but we are still invited to revel in the wonders of a circus which keeps animals in horribly small cages and goads them into playing up for an expectant crowd. Of course some of this still goes on, and in the UK the RSPCA do their best to stop mistreatment and neglect, but their jobs would be made a lot easier if films such as this didn’t try to romanticise their use in cruel and sometimes dangerous circus activity.
The ‘when I was a young lad’ flashback-style structure is reminiscent of another awful film, The Notebook, which also dealt with an uninvolving and frustratingly syrupy love story. At least in that film the two leads were more or less the same age; here Witherspoon feels far too old to be cosying up to Pattinson. Indeed, he even played her son in her 2004 picture Vanity Fair (although his role ended up on the cutting room floor).
This is an emotionally dull, thoroughly repulsive piece of sentimental nonsense, the type of thing you’d expect to see during the daytime on the Hallmark Channel. Avoid it at all costs.
Water for Elephants (2011), directed by Frances Lawrence, is available on DVD and Blu-ray from 20thCentury Fox, certificate 12.