Circus of Cruelty

Water for Elephants

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Water for Elephants is a flamboyant if not old fashioned tale of a man who literally runs away to join the circus. Directed by Francis Lawrence known for his more commercial ventures in Constantine and the Will Smith sci-thriller, I am Legend, Water for Elephants is set during the Great depression in the early 1930s when America was at the height of Prohibition. The films centres on Jacob a young and promising veterinary doctor, and would be graduate of Cornell, whose studies are disrupted by the tragic death of his Polish immigrant parents.

Leaving his childhood home behind Jacob follows the railway line and like many itinerant young men of that decade hops on the nearest train as a free ride towards a brighter future. Except the train is a circus train complete with wild animals, acrobats, a grumpy midget and the translucent star of the circus Marlena, played beautifully by Reese Witherspoon. Jacob shows his useful veterinary skills to Marlena and then to her husband, August a cruel circus master, played with an evil unpredictability by Christoph Waltz.

Robert Pattinson, in between his Twilight saga, left his teeth behind as he plays a simmering Jacob, yet without the full conviction of an actor embracing this characters full complexity and sadness. In the love triangle that ensues between Jacob, Marlena and August, it is Christoph Waltz who really shows his true acting ability as a slightly bi-polar, entirely vicious egocentric circus master who has a penchant for throwing vagrant men off moving trains.

Then again, Waltz did win an Oscar for his brilliant and sinister portrayal of the multilingual ruthless Nazi in Inglourious Basterds; however his danger of becoming the perennial villain is more evident. Both in the disastrous Green Lantern and Water for Elephants, Waltz is cast as the slightly off kilter, sociopathic villain. Reese Witherspoon portrayal of Marlena is fragile and elusive, made infinitely more evocative by the beautiful1930’s costumes and daring scenes with horses and Rosie the elephants, which is film’s main attraction.

Water for Elephants is more about the underlying cruelty to the circus animals that went on unnoticed as the glitzy big top was mesmerizing local towns at the time with acrobatic acts, clowns and lavish spectacle. This cruelty naturally boils over towards the climactic scene of the film, as the circus animals take revenge on their ring leader. Water for Elephants is beautiful to watch, reasonably well acted and entertaining to a point, just short of being an epic.

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In the hands of a more inventive director, this film about the circus would have dazzled in the same way that Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge was superbly over the top and outrageously brilliant, but Lawrence’s take on the circus is shot through with a soft focus nostalgic feel – beautiful, but lacking in resonance. As for Rosie the Elephant she steals the show and not the likes of her handler, Jacob, a slightly dull performance by Pattinson, who has a way to go in achieving  credibility and maturity as a successful leading man.

 

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