I went to see Water for Elephants yesterday with my friend Leah, and oh my word I loved it. I've never read the novel by Sara Gruen, so I have nothing with which to compare the film. However, I have to confess I have a little-known love affair with circus films, which is probably weird since I've never attended a show. Now, I was never all that fond of Dumbo (too sad), but growing up I couldn't get enough the romance of Billy Rose's Jumbo,the melodrama of Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, or the high-flying theatricality of Trapeze. Couple a circus story with delicious 1930s sets and costumes? I'm so there. So obviously, I was already predisposed to liking this film. Now a little bit about the story for the uninitiated...
Jacob Jankowski, the only son of Polish immigrants, is on the verge of graduating with a degree in veterinary medicine when his career is derailed by the tragic death of both parents in an auto accident. When the bank forecloses on the family home (a casualty of the Depression), he takes to the road and joins the Benzini Brothers Circus, run by August, a temperamental man prone to wild fits of anger and dangerously dark moods. August is married to the show's star attraction, the incandescentally beautiful Marlena, a talented bareback rider. With the country deep in the throes of the Great Depression, the Benzini Bros. is barely getting by. August sinks all of his hopes in the acquisition of Rosie the elephant, and he'll do anything to get ahead - and I mean anything. When Jacob does the unthinkable - falls in love with Marlena and offers her a better life - August is furious, and his rage-fueled quest for vengeance threatens not only Jacob and Marlena, but the survival of the entire circus.
The film opens with an elderly Jacob, played by a wonderfully heart-wrenching Hal Holbrook, having left his nursing home to visit a traveling circus nearby. There he meets Charlie (Paul Schneider), who expresses interest in Jacob's story when he learns that Jacob was a first-hand witness to the Benzini Brothers Circus disaster of 1931. And so begins our trip down memory lane, experiencing the life-changing year that birthed Jacob's bond with the circus culture and changed the course of his life. I really loved how the film frames the story with the elderly Jacob's reminscences. There is something so incredibly poignant about the way Holbrook plays the scene, the way his face comes so alive when he finds someone interested in his story. It is a powerful reminder of the beauty of listening and the power of story, no?
I was really worried about the fact that Robert Pattinson, the face of (gag me, I'm sorry I can't take it) the Twilight movies, was anchoring this film as the young Jacob. People, I am here to tell you this movie gives me hope that one day Pattinson with be able to overcome the vampire stigma on his career. I'm not willing to say he was great, but he carried off the period piece aspect of the drama MUCH better and more believably than I expected, and he did a creditable job standing up to the star power of Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz, which is no small feat. By the time the climax of the film hits, I really bought Pattinson's emotional involvement in Jacob's character and experiences, to his everlasting credit.
I just love Reese Witherspoon, and I cannot imagine an actress more perfect for the role of Marlena than her. She has the perfect personality and look to convincingly play a 1930s-era woman - in every scene I was struck over and over again by how well she fit within the world of this film. Obviously she was born to wear fabulous 1930s-era clothes (even the over-the-top performance costumes!). Witherspoon brings just the right balance of strength and vulnerability to the role of Marlena. To Marlena's credit, she remains faithful to her marriage much longer than many people would expect, given the abuse she regularly endures at August's hands. Over and over she's the victim of his violently changeable moods, and over and over again she steps into the proverbial lion's den in an attempt to calm him. While I can't condone the fact that Marlena and Jacob end up sleeping together while she's still married to her ass of a husband, I do appreciate the fact that this was not an act easily arrived at - over and over again Jacob and Marlena step back and strive to do the right thing, to not act on their mutual attraction. And surprisingly, I actually found myself buying Witherspoon and Pattinson as an on-screen couple. Especially by the end of the film - Jacob grows up a lot over the course of this movie, and I feel like Pattinson allowed his acting to convey that really quite well. One of his best moments comes when he tells Marlena he wants her to have a better life, with or without him - I loved that he was willing to sacrifice his happiness at that point for hers, whatever the decision she chose to make.
I'm not familiar with the work of Christoph Waltz, but I'd be hard-pressed to think of the last time I was so riveted by an actor's performance. August is an absolutely appalling character, but Waltz is so magnetic, he owns the screen in every single one of his scenes. It's an unsettling experience, being so riveted by such a menacing character. Even when August is in one of his affable, friendly moods, Waltz gives the character an edge, so you are always cognizant of the threat that at any moment, uncontrollable rage could burst to the surface and tip him over the edge into madness. Based on this performance, I'm looking forward to (hopefully) Waltz giving us a suitably menacing Cardinal Richelieu in the upcoming The Three Musketeers film this fall.
From what I've read about Gruen's novel, it pulls no punches in its dark and gritty portrayal of the hardships of Depression-era circus life. I would argue that the film does a stunning job accomplishing the same goal. The circus life Jacob discovers is squalid, filthy, and brutal, but somehow from these unlikely, broken pieces, the performers and roustabouts make magic happen under the big top. I loved the performance scenes, where the film allows us to see the reaction of the audience - for a Depression-era crowd, the circus was a fantastic escape from reality, and the wonder and joy on the faces of the adults and children in the audience is heart-wrenching to behold.
The "grunts" that make the circus magic possible lived an unbelievably hard-scrabble life. One reads in history books about the habit of hobos "riding the rails" from town to town, looking for work. But I'd never heard, or imagined, the dangers such transient workers faced when working for a circus like the Benzini Brothers. Workers are fired by being "redlighted" - thrown off a moving train. If you lived, you were lucky, and with August running the show, if he took a dislike to you every effort was made to decrease your chances of surviving the fall. The circus world dangerous high-wire act for Jacob to navigate - he's drawn to befriend and defend the weakest in the troupe, often to his own peril.
As an animal lover, one of the most difficult things to witness in this movie was the multiple instances of animal abuse, and the generally harsh conditions in which the menagerie of circus animals lived. The contrast between August's brutal strong-arm tactics and Jacob's gentle, educated perspective is riveting to see play out on-screen. And though the worst of the abuse that Rosie the elephant endures occurs off-screen, it brought tears to my eyes. She is such a magnificent, gentle creature, it's difficult to fathom how only Jacob and Marlena can see and appreciate her glorious existence. (I have got to say, though, could it be any more obvious a plot twist that Rosie ONLY UNDERSTANDS POLISH?!)
I'm a huge film score fan, and James Newton Howard delivers a lush, romantic score for Water for Elephants. He captures the magic, energy, and romance of the film beautifully. The score is complemented by the judicious use of a few period songs, such as "I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl," performed by Bessie Smith from 1931 and "Button Up Your Overcoat," performed by Ruth Etting from 1929. Period songs just add additional authenticity to the whole feel of the film. And I have to believe that this film will receive multiple Oscar nominations come next year's awards season for its gorgeous costumes and sets (at least!). The look and feel of this movie is an absolute triumph - it's so gritty, and down-to-earth, and real, but at the same time completely magical, that I would've been wholly absorbed by the world of the film alone even if a compelling story was absent. Francis Lawrence serves as director, and he keeps the pace of the film brisk, each shot gorgeously realized and expertly building toward the legendary disaster that destroyed the Benzini circus. I'm doubly impressed with the skillful directing considering that most of Lawrence's credits appear to be for music videos, which was an unexpected background to say the least - he's definitely someone to watch.
I expected to like this movie, but I didn't expect to get so caught up in the story, to fall so in love with the world of the movie and the characters' lives. This is a story about a life well-lived, and living life to the fullest - about overcoming and the beauty to be found in the midst of hardship and strife. I absolutely loved the fact that the older Jacob gets to close out the film and serve as its emotional anchor, if you will. Holbrook exudes a palpable frustration at being old, because in his mind he's every bit as active as when he first joined the circus, every bit as in love with Marlena and the life they built together that now exists only in his memories. But oh, what a memory. Jacob could easily be an embittered old man - his children aren't there for him as one might hope, and he could focus on the loss - but instead of that he remains thankful for the life he's lived, determined to continue living it to the fullest for as long as he's able. Water for Elephants is a gorgeous, compelling piece of cinema and I can't wait to see it again.
If you've read the novel and seen the movie, or just seen the movie (*grin*), I'd love to hear your thoughts!