The London-born actor, David Niven (who is best known for his role as Phileas Fogg in Michael Anderson’s critically-acclaimed Around the World in 80 Days) was once quoted as saying, “Keep the circus going inside you, keep it going, don’t take anything too seriously, and it’ll all work out in the end.” Indeed, the circus, with its endless display of quirky talents who accomplish feats otherwise deemed impossible, has become a universal symbol for wholesome fun — a sanctum in which fantasy melds with reality. However when Sara Gruen’s historical romance Water for Elephants released, it challenged that image; the plot of the novel revolves around Jacob Jankowski, an elderly man who recalls his experiences at a traveling circus, which beneath the heavy make-up and toothless lions, is host to the seedy underbelly of Depression-era America.
Francis Lawrence’s beautifully produced and intelligent adaptation explores the same themes. In the leading role is a charismatic Robert Pattinson as Jacob Jankowski, the acting circus veterinarian, Academy-Award winner, Christoph Waltz as August, the circus’ ringleader, who makes his workers quiver and once fearless animals obey him, and Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, August’s wife and star of the Benzini Bros. Water for Elephants delves into the forbidden amour that Jankowski shares with the disenchanted Marlena — a woman who fears both her husband and the outside world. In addition, Tai, a trained elephant joins the cast as Rosie, a 53-year-old mastodon which August purchases for Marlena to ride as part of the show — intending that this new attraction increase revenue. While the film’s melodramatic tone and idealistic narrative may put down some, those seeking an entertaining popcorn drama need look no further.
And despite the lack of chemistry between the film’s mismatched leads, Richard LaGravenese, who penned the script, treats each character with impeccable wit and complexity — August, the picture’s antagonist, being the most intriguing. At one point, whilst teaching Jacob the punishments that await those who disobey him, the troubled headmaster proclaims, “This circus — my circus — is a sovereign nation,” declaring the show’s independence from the outside world where many of the performers are labeled freaks and believe they have no future in. Meanwhile, his own wife admits the tyrannical state that the circus is run under: “Nobody stops, nobody dies until August says so,” she confides in Jacob. But, surprisingly, when he doesn’t resort to beating his stage animals (an attempt to control them) and tossing crew overboard to save a few bucks, August exhibits genuine human emotion: Love for Marlena, jealousy when he spots her befriending the smooth-faced Jacob, and even loneliness — the end result of not having friends. Waltz portrays these schizophrenic habits perfectly.
Realistic set and costume design further propel the circus’ mystique. Gratuitous in its color palette, the film’s juxtaposition between time — the midst of the Depression — and place — the jubilant hippodrome, where only smiling faces can be seen in the crowd — adds to the movie’s central idea, which explores the difference between fantasia and truth.
With Water for Elephants, Lawrence creates an oftentimes soapy (albeit touching) old fashioned romance. Fortunately, the mystery is strong throughout, constantly foretelling the downfall of the characters’ world — a reveal that turns out satisfying (much to the surprise of *ahem* cynical film critics). But even when the on-screen connection between Witherspoon and Pattinson becomes bland and uncommitted, their strong individual performances pull the production back up, making this circus one helluva’ show.