Synopsis: Based on the acclaimed bestseller, Water for Elephants presents an unexpected romance in a uniquely compelling setting. Veterinary school student Jacob meets and falls in love with Marlena, a star performer in a circus of a bygone era. They discover beauty amidst the world of the Big Top, and come together through their compassion for a special elephant. Against all odds — including the wrath of Marlena’s charismatic but dangerous husband, August — Jacob and Marlena find lifelong love.
Release Date: April 22, 2011 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Drama, Romance
Adapted from the best selling novel of the same name, Water For Elephants is a film that held great potential to be an epic sweeping romance built around the early American traveling circus. The grandiose expectations attached to the film remain unfulfilled sadly, not for a lack of trying but due to a weak foundation from screenwriter Richard LaGranenesse script.
The narrative begins in the present day, as an old man finds himself outside of a circus on a rainy evening having missed the show. As a resident of the local nursing home he has not become lost, he has all of his wits about him, but merely alone without a ride home. Sitting with the current circus manager his story begins to unfold as he glances at pictures on the wall and one very famous photo of a woman atop a elephant. It is this woman’s photo that brings him to tears, and his story begins. The year is 1931 and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is about to graduate from Cornell University with a degree in Veterinary Science. His family fled Poland to find themselves in America, proud to have a new start at a great life, even in the midst of the Great Depression. What should have been a joyous occasion for Jacob and his parents, becomes the greatest of tragedies as they are killed in a car accident. Left alone, without money or a home, Jacob becomes a wanderer. But he does not have to wander far as the first train he hitches a ride on belongs to the traveling Banzini Bros. Circus. He finds work with the circus as a veterinarian, and soon finds himself in a forbidden romance with the Circus Owner’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).
Before Jacob meets Marlena there is the moment he experiences awe with the circus; something that will sustain the entire film once the romance proves to be lifeless. The train stops on the tracks and suddenly dozens of men and women disembark. The tent is raised in glorious splendor and the animals rolled out in their cages. Jacob’s eyes light up as the show begins, and the entire sequence of scenes that follow fall into a melodic pace, timed to music made for dreaming. The sounds of dialogue, animals, and all other ambient noises fade to a barely audible level while the score slumbers quietly in the background as Jacob takes in the beauty, the grandeur, of the circus acts. Most notably, that of Marlena and her horses. But this wonderment that crosses his face is not mingled with lust but excitement. Everything becomes illuminated, it glows through his eyes, and the circus at once is magical. This is the moment Water For Elephants feels like an epic film; this is also the last time it maintains such a glimmer.
The shiny surface of the circus is quickly dulled and beaten away when the reality of circus life, as run by August (Christoph Waltz), is revealed. August is a man with many faces. He can be gentile, entertaining, and charming; while a moment later harboring such cruelty in his eyes he is frightening. He is a man who is surrounded by animals, but treats them like property, with violence and cruelty. His wife, Marlena, is his greatest possession; a beautiful woman who is the star of his show. Between Jacob, Marlena, and August, August is the one character who is given the time and dedication in the script to be built upon. If not well-developed he is at least understood in a greater manner than anyone else and made to be a larger-than-life influence on the viewer. August is exhausting to watch as his mood and temperament are impossible to gauge. One tiny glint in his eye and you see the polarity of his personality. Jacob and Marlena always remain themselves, from the beginning until the end. There are no layers to their characters, nothing to reveal of importance that is not superficial or expected.
This is where the script fails the viewer. As an adaptation there must have been more depth and emphasis on the love affair between Marlena and Jacob in the novel. You cannot help but think there are important scenes missing from the film, like chapters of a book, that if they were present the story would have a much greater impact. The elephant, Rosie, and Jacob forge a bond stronger than he and Marlena, which in a romance between a man and a woman does not say much for the romance. Water For Elephants is an emotion driven film, yet it lacks the components to realize great emotional depth. This is definitely an epic story, it just was not given the epic treatment.
There are two key relationships in Water For Elephants, and they are very different. The first is between Jacob and Marlena. Their’s is the forbidden love; the one that could end in both of their lives being lost should her husband, the quick-tempered August, discover it. The passion and intensity one expects between them, from across a room or while dancing scandalously close to one another never explodes on screen. They are far too common in their actions, quickly forgotten by one another in the grander scope of the narrative, and far too quickly thrust together in order to see the grand finish realized in an attempt to up the dramatic affect on the viewer. Any well-viewed audience member will easily realize, and sense, the absence of sparks between Jacob and Marlena.
The second important pairing is that of Jacob and Rosie, the elephant. Jacob has a tender and loving way with all animals, and Rosie becomes the closest to his heart. As unimaginable as it may seem for a man and an elephant to forge a greater bond that provides more of an emotional pull on the viewer than between him and a woman it has occurred in Water For Elephants. It is very much because of Jacob’s relationship with Rosie that his love for Marlena can even be considered tangible. She is also an animal lover and treats Rosie well, a bond they forge together towards the elephant. The stand-out pair of the film, the one that makes you weep at the end from the great amount of love given, and lost, is between Rosie and Jacob. Marlena may as well have been any woman, in any place, for Jacob and her would find melting ice a very difficult task.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Francis Lawrence
- Producer(s): Richard LaGranenesse
- Screenwriter(s): Reese Witherspoon (Marlena)Robert Pattinson (Jacob)Christoph Waltz (August)
- Story: Paul Schneider (Charlie)
- Cast: Jim Norton (Camel) Alan Edward BellRodrigo PrietoJack Fisk
- Cinematographer: James Newton Howard
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score:
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: USA