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Valerie Z. Written by Valerie Z.
May. 9, 2011 | 11:08 PM

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“Water for Elephants” is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Sara Gruen.  Set in the early 1930’s, a young man named Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is about to take his final exams at Cornell University, when he is informed that his parents have been in a fatal auto accident.  Because his father, instead of paying off the family home, sent his son to the university, and because his father exchanged goods and services for chickens, Jacob is forced to leave his beloved home.  Broke with nowhere to go, Jacob impulsively jumps aboard a passing train, which turns out to be a traveling circus.  While working as a manual laborer, he spots Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the beautiful wife of the boss and star attraction.  Shortly thereafter, he is summoned to meet August (Christoph Waltz), the beguiling but abusive boss of the circus.  Because Jacob was studying to be a veterinarian, he is a natural choice to care for the animals, including training Rosie, the new elephant that August has acquired.  When Rosie fails to perform, August takes his rage out on the poor, defenseless animal, drawing Marlena and Jacob closer together.  As it turns out, Rosie understands Polish, Jacobs’s native tongue and she and Marlena become stars of the circus.  As Jacob and Marlena’s attraction for each other grows, August catches Jacob and his wife making eyes at each other and forces his goons to throw Jacob from the train.  Marlena’s agrees to leave with him and together, they jump off the train and head for the nearest hotel.  The next morning, at the hotel, Augusts’ goons snatch Marlena and return her to August after severely beating Jacob.  Jacob returns to the train, this time he attempts to take Augusts’ life but is too scared to really do it.  While performing what would be her final act with the Benzini Bros Circus, chaos ensues as animals are let out of their cages, once again sending August into a rage.

The film is directed by Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I am Legend), and the exquisite cinematography is by Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, Frida, 21 Grams, Brokeback Mountain, Babel), who visually captures the spectacle of a circus.

If you are expecting this film to catapult Robert Pattinson into a serious actor, you’ll have to wait as the handsome young actor continues to brood his way through the film.  Reese Witherspoon is fine but this performance falls short as compared with her earlier work.  The chemistry between Witherspoon and Pattinson is fine but lacks any sizzle.  This romance remains tepid between the two, even during the one love scene.

Hal Holbrook is a gem as the mature, modern-day Jacob, who takes us on a narrative journey by recounting the story of the Benzini Bros. Circus and his love, Marlena.  Christoph Waltz is brilliant as the charismatic but brutal boss of the circus, as he teeters between charm and cruelty toward everyone including Marlena and the animals.  When he doesn’t have money to pay for all of the employees, he has his men throw them from the moving train without warning.  The supporting cast is first-rate as authentic carnival workers.

James Newton Howard’s score, along with the other music selections are appropriate and move the story along with precision.  Jacqueline West’s costumes are beautiful, especially the gowns.

The film is 2 hours and is rated PG-13.

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