Love it or hate it, the Twilight series has been a massive success that turned its handsome star, Robert Pattinson, into an international pin-up idol overnight. Between instalments and capitalizing on the fever generated by the fanged franchise, here is his latest showcase: Water for Elephants, another tale of doomed love in a setting full of mythical creatures – this time the awe-inspiring beasts of a travelling carnival.
Pattinson plays Jacob (nothing to do with that Jacob), a veterinary student on the verge of graduation in the early years of the Great Depression. When his parents are killed in a well-timed accident that prevents him from taking his final exam, he is subsequently cast out onto the streets as a result of debts that his father supposedly left unpaid. His veterinary skills eventually win him a place in the fabled Benzini Brothers circus, which is run by the shrewd and merciless businessman August (Christoph Waltz, a major TV star in Germany who began his Hollywood career by landing an Oscar for his sinister performance in Inglourious Basterds).
Jacob’s relationship with August is deeply strained by the fact that he can’t take his eyes off August’s wife, the circus’ star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, caught in the middle again after How Do You Know). This is where Pattinson gets to fall back on his tried and true talent of the long, wistful look, as Marlena takes a step towards Jacob, then a step back, then he does the same, then August, who is a raging alcoholic, gets drunk and abusive and beats someone up – then the whole routine starts all over again.
Water for Elephants is unashamedly classical in its mode, look and structure. It builds a sense of wonder right from the beginning, with its old-man-with-a-story framing device – and it helps that the old man is played here by ageing veteran Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild). The setting reinforces the magical tone, with its menagerie of talented animals and reverence for a legendary form of entertainment. It’s this agreeably old-fashioned storytelling muscle that will draw many viewers in, especially if you’re fond of lavish old-school epics like Titanic or Seabiscuit. It’s no surprise that the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Sara Gruen, was written by Richard LaGravenese – it recalls the lush photography, melancholic score and lovelorn characters of films like The Horse Whisperer and The Bridges of Madison County.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really enough here to propel the story and hold your attention for two hours. It’s the novelty of the setting, and the spectacle it provides, that will keep you interested more than anything else. With music video director Francis Lawrence at the helm, Elephants is a technically accomplished piece of eye candy, and the intense climax provides a much-needed jolt. Waltz’s performance as the sadistic ringleader, the most complex character in the film, is also fascinating to watch, as the conflicted August swings back and forth between childlike vulnerability and unforgivable cruelty. It’s interesting to note that the filmmakers have come under fire for alleged mistreatment of its ivory-tusked star. Whether there is any truth to this or not, in the end the film will most likely be remembered for having the best performance by an elephant in a supporting role. Pass the peanuts.