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Water for Elephants movie review

Courtney Cox | Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Set in the visually stimulating context of a circus traveling by rail, “Water for Elephants” is a sweeping romantic tale that invites audiences into a time of simple entertainment.  Based on the novel of the same name by Sara Gruen, the film is a slow but beautiful testament to the pain of forbidden love.

The film begins with an older Jacob Jankowski visiting the director of a modern day circus. Hal Holbrook, the quintessential cute old man, plays Jacob and could not be more perfect in a bow tie with a quiet enthusiasm for everything circus-related. The director asks Jacob to talk about his experience at the Benzini Brother’s circus. Thus starts the retrospective into Jacob’s youth.

Robert Pattinson plays the role of Jacob in his early 20s. He is the only son of Polish immigrants and a student at Cornell University, studying veterinary medicine. This, of course, comes to a halt following the tragic death of both of his parents. He leaves behind everything he knows for the adventure of a lifetime. He hops on a moving train, in effect becoming a member of the circus.

Pattinson proves a much more reserved and pensive actor than the “Twilight” films would lead one to believe. Though the film is full of drama, Pattinson’s performance never borders on melodrama. It is the first film in which he appears to be a true actor as opposed to simply an attractive face.

Perhaps Pattinson stepped up his game because he was surrounded by incredibly accomplished actors in this project, Christoph Waltz being one of them. Best known for his Academy Award Winning portrayal of the twisted Nazi general in “Inglorious Basterds,” Waltz proves even more sinister in the role of August, the director of the circus.

 August is cruel to all involved in the show, animals and humans alike. He forces everyone to work until they cannot go on. This is seen most clearly when he punishes the newest member of the circus, an elephant named Rosie, for running away during a show. His brutality crosses over into his personal life and affects his relationship with his wife.

Academy Award winning actress Reese Witherspoon plays Marlena, the star attraction of Benzini Brother’s Circus and August’s wife. Her gentle mannerisms are a stark contrast to her husband’s and from the moment she  arrives on-screen, she escalates the sheer beauty of the film. Through their time working with Rosie, Marlena and Jacob fall in love, but it is a feeling the two hesitate to act upon. Jacob’s journey to protect and fight for the woman he loves sets the stage for the rest of the plot.

The best moments of the film are ones in which the audience is overwhelmed with the elegance of the image in front of them. The costume design is simplistic for all thecharacters except Marlena. She is truly the perfect mannequin for a wardrobe that consists of dated styles in modern silhouettes. She is often seen in racerback dresses, high waisted shorts, even jodhpurs. Her perfect 1920’s fingerwave curls enhance the movie’s periodic setting.

The landscapes captured as the circus travels are also incredible. The train serves as a means to truly see the country. It is not, as it is today, just a way to commute from suburban sprawl to the city. It brings back the true romanticism trains invoked during this time period.

The film captures a touching story of love and the struggle to achieve it, and it does so with an eye for the beauty that can be manifested in something as simple as a circus.