The intricate and deeply involved plot of the best-selling Sara Gruen novel Water for Elephants is translated with elegance and grace onto the big screen.
It would have been easy to skip over the great detail that has made the novel so beloved, but filmmakers don't hold back and the result is a beautiful love story with a interesting sub-plot of looking beyond the surface to see a less-than-desirable reality.
The film starts off with Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) as a old man, trying to visit the circus outside his nursing home. He starts telling the circus manager the story about his time with Benzini Bros. Circus -- part of one of the most well-known circus disasters of all time.
We see him transform into a young Jacob (Robert Pattinson) as he starts to tell his tale. Jacob is a Cornell student on the verge of becoming an veterinarian, but on the day of his exams, he finds out some tragic news about his family. Left with nothing, Jacob leaves his home town and finds himself on a train with a travelling circus. He starts working for the circus as their veterinarian and soon meets Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the circus' star performer.
The two form a close bond when the circus' ring leader (and Marlena's husband) August (Christoph Waltz) buys an elephant named Rosie. They work together to get Rosie ready for the circus and Jacob soon realizes that August is very different on the surface than in reality when he starts to show his true colors. Jacob must decide what his priorities are and, if he is willing to risk his own life, as the stakes get higher.
The film goes beyond a simple love story and director Francis Lawrence brings depth and color to his characters. You really see the struggle each of them are going through -- debating between doing what is right and keeping up appearances for the sake of the circus.
The film does a great job of exploring the complexities presented in the novel and although not everything makes it to the big screen, nothing substantial, affecting the overall story, is cut. Robert Pattinson is perfect as Jacob and you actually forget that he is the infamous Edward Cullen, which is good considering that character has been the majority of his career so far. He proves that he can hold his own outside the security of a popular series and make a great movie for grown-ups.
Reese Witherspoon is delightful and charming. Marlena is presented as a strong character -- bound by circumstance, but never a victim. You don't feel sorry for Marlena, but do want her to escape the firm grasp of her abusive husband.
The real performance nod goes to Christoph Waltz who has perfected the villain in past films, but brings a new depth to August. The ring-leader is a troubled man who can go from complete charmer to terrifying abuser in a matter of seconds. He is feared by the people of the circus and it is evident in his performance. Waltz expertly presents the underlying theme of appearance vs. reality, which is such a interesting and profound message presented throughout the film.
Although Witherspoon and Pattinson do a great job individually, their chemistry as a couple is lacking. Their love story is one of forbidden meetings and fleeting moments, but we don't really see the passion associated with such a desperate situation. They seem to genuinely like and respect each other, but it doesn't go beyond that.
Overall, Water for Elephants is a mesmerizing tale of love and devotion in its many forms. The complex relationships are magnified and complimented by the wonderful cinematography and beautiful backdrop of a 1930s circus.