Feature: Water for Elephants

by April 19, 2011

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

You have been warned.

The despair, and degradation of the Great Depression combined with the spectacle of escapist circus entertainment. In the 1930s, the magic of the Circus captivated audiences and provided an escape from poverty and teetering on the brink of failure for many people. It is in the current (not so) Great Depression of 2011, Fox 2000 sought to resurrect that magic through a period circus drama and romance.

The narrator, Jacob Jankowski, (Robert Pattinson) at one point makes a comment, “August was right, everything is an illusion.” This is fitting for a film that is superficially beautiful yet lacking a sort of grit and realism that would truly portray a circus drama. In this fairy tale version of “Depression Circus light”, the hay is clean, the dirt is a sepia-filter, and the manure doesn’t stink.

Fortunately, not everything about this film is a soft watercolor scrapbook portrait. August Rosenbluth, (Christoph Waltz), provides the true “heart and soul” to the film. What promised to be a fairly typical romance between Jacob and Mrs. Rosenbluth (Reese Witherspoon) is set on its’ ear, by a very large, real, present threat of the violently unstable August, whose emotions radiate from his body onto the screen. August is charming, powerful, sexual, charismatic, and utterly dangerous in the face of the stress of holding onto every unraveling thread on his rope. The stress of men not being paid, having a third rate circus, a wife he never trusted, a lame Liberty horse, and the overarching theme of depression has taken its’ toll on August’s stability. Christoph Waltz takes this material, and turns it into a multifaceted gem of a character: desperate, the lines in his face etch the toll life has taken on him, but with grace and appropriately camp showmanship he commands his audience and performers. With terrifying brute force and anger he menaces his elephant, and with seductive sexual dominance, he charms his wife into passionate kisses. The romantic premise of the movie takes a backseat to the drama caused by August directed towards Jacob, Marlena and the animals.

The relationship between August and Marlena is a very believable portrayal of an abusive marriage. The cyclical nature of the abuse pattern is portrayed accurately and the roles of abuser and enablers are well demonstrated. Together, August and Marlena are a very believable pair, and have clear sexual tension and affection. However, the relationship between Marlena and Jacob is not as obvious and while sweetly romantic, it is more like puppy love than a love which would rock an institution. Pattinson is much more at home with the animals, and his tenderness and obvious esteem for his four-legged costars is evident on his face – more natural response than acting.

While the direction is exceedingly good, and many scenes were beautifully filmed, during the climax, the director could not help but pay homage to Waltz and Tarantino by filming a scene where August is strangling Marlena using the same angles as were used during the strangulation scene in Inglourious Basterds. To a fan of Waltz, this moment is unmistakable. It is annoying that a lot of marvelous scenes were ruined by over-promotion, and many scenes that were filmed were cut. Even scenes that were videoed and used for promotion were different in the theatrical release. Apparently this is the normal standard these days for film promotion.

All in all, Water for Elephants is a clear Christoph Waltz movie, with Pattinson and Witherspoon playing supporting roles to his August. It is a shame the film was promoted differently, as he is the real spark and heat in the story, and will leave an entirely new audience astounded and in awe of his formidable talents.

Christoph Waltz Fans