MFR Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
An epic 1930s coming of age period piece. It is easy to see Water For Elephants as another step in Robert Pattinson‘s quest for credibility and desperate desire to shrug off the stigma of the Twilight series. Pattinson may not be the best thing about his latest venture, but credible this certainly is.
Based on the novel by Sara Gruen, Water For Elephants focuses on Jacob Jankowski, first played by Hal Holbrook but for most of the movie performed by the much younger, perpetually moody but never particularly annoying, Robert Pattinson. Already this poses extraordinary headaches for Twilighters. Edward is now playing Jacob? Wait, surely he hasn’t become a werewolf and his own love rival? Fortunately for this film’s coherence, he has not. Instead he plays a young Cornell student of veterinary science from Polish descent, who finds himself absorbed in the world of a 1930s traveling circus following the death of his parents, forcing him to drop out of education and at one of life’s great crossroads.
Pattinson may not give one of the most intense performances, but his character is nevertheless easily sympathetic, and even the most passionate member of Team Edward will have to pinch themselves for moving over to Team Jacob. But my constant Twilight references are doing this film a disservice, not because Twilight is utterly devoid of enjoyability, but because besides the lead actor, both films stands far away from any reasonable comparison. Water For Elephants is an emotionally engaging and an absorbing piece of work without the overwhelmingly vomit-enducing sentimentality of something like 2008’s Australia, a film with the emotional subtlety of a grandma watching the Royal Wedding and the desperation for awards of a particularly attention seeking and spoiled child.
One of my few gripes with this film lies in the director’s choice of continual close ups of Pattinson. This was not particularly bothering, but at times it felt Pattinson was almost suffocated by the camera’s attraction to him and a bit of creativity in the shots would have allowed the film to breathe a bit more easily. Every pixel of Pattinson’s faultless face is explored with the endevour of a particularly infatuated stalker.
Yes, it has sentimental moments. Fortunately, Jacob’s sympathy for the poorly treated animals and his romantic affection for Reese Witherspoon’s character, Marlena, never feels particularly sappy, but simply quite genuine and often touching. Marlena is one of the circus’ great performers and her marriage to circus leader, August (Christopher Waltz), poses the great antagonism for the story. Waltz’s supporting performance steals the film. His sinister portrayal of the Machiavellian Nazi in Inglorious Basterds (2008) brought critical acclaim and the strength of his performance is continued here. The extent of August’s wickedness is not readily apparent and it’s easy to question the extent to which a more sympathetic character be unveiled. This uncertainty over August’s decency drives the film and his relationship with Jacob is both compelling and enigmatic. The audience feels a heart-warming closeness to Pattinson’s character, not so much because of the director’s choice of closeups, but because of the quality of the writing and a narrative which never feels forced, but sincere. The circus world created feels alive, vibrant and often difficult to second guess.
Water For Elephants is stylish and wonderfully paced. The audience is slowly absorbed allowing for greater attachment once the film reaches its climax. There will be a significant community who will not see the film on the principle of its lead’s connection to the Twilight Saga, but such preconceptions are woefully misjudged and quite frankly mistaken. Witherspoon and Waltz’s particularly strong supporting roles do not necessarily carry the movie, but reinforce it and allow it to become truly captivating.
Water For Elephants opens on 4 May in the UK and is already open in the US. Certificate 12A (UK). Running time: 120 mins
Review by David Rank