I will openly admit that after seeing the posters in my local cinema for this, it certainly wasn’t going to be one on the list of “movies to look forward to in 2011”. Post Twilight, Robert Pattinson (or R-Patz as he’s known by Twi..hardians?) hasn’t been able to shake the typecast of an emotionally unstable, brooding male. Last years Remember Me didn’t help his image, and was quite possibly the worst romantic drama I saw in 2010. Reese Witherspoon’s face hasn’t been seen in anything even remotely memorable since 2005’s Walk The Line, a biographical account of country music legend Johnny Cash. The only thing that interested me was the casting of Christopher Waltz, the linguistic genius who won an Oscar for his incredible performance in 2009 as Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. So it may come as a surprise to you, loyal RA readers, that Water For Elephants has made its way into my top five films of 2011 for its elegance, beauty and great performances by all.
Based on the novel of the same name, Water For Elephants is the story of Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring vet who’s final exam is interrupted by the tragic news that his parents have been killed in a car accident. With nothing left to stay for, he leaves town and it’s not long before he hitches on a train belonging to the travelling circus. His talents as an animal doctor are needed instantly, as an integral part of the star attraction, a horse, begins to limp. The rider, Marlene (Reese Witherspoon), is also the ringleaders wife: August (Christopher Waltz) is the ruthless owner of the circus, who’s heartless actions have made the other circus folk afraid of him. Jacobs kind nature catches the attention of Marlene, and they fall in love. But is there any chance that their illicit affair can last under the watchful eye of August?
Water For Elephants prides itself on being a grand, old fashioned drama. It promises nothing less, but delivers so much more. From the old style, ‘looking back’ voice over narration to the gorgeous set designs, it impresses on all levels; even Pattinson puts in a worthy performance. Finally, he has a role where he can break away from his comfort zone, and he handles it with great professionalism, in the process creating a warm character that is incredibly likeable. Witherspoon isn’t particularly awe inspiring, but she fits the bill for what is expected of her. Maybe it was the Marlene persona as opposed to her own acting, as she doesn’t do anything wrong but the chemistry between the two occasionally doesn’t set the screen alight. Waltz, however, is on a whole other level. His breakthrough came with Inglourious Basterds, and he undoubtedly stole the show. The same can be said here, with him bringing such passion and emotion to every scene he graces. He’s lined up to star in Roman Polanski’s next picture, as well as this years Three Musketeers and is promisingly rumoured for Tarantino’s western Django Unchained, so the future is looking bright for Mr Waltz.
I can’t stress enough just how beautiful it all is: even though it’s set during the Great Depression, the vibrancy brings out a longing for the viewer to have been around at that time. Every inch of the chaotically controlled nature of circus life is captured exquisitely by experienced cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who worked on Brokeback Mountain, 21 Grams and the underrated but visually stunning Babel.
Looking past it’s beauty, the most prominent flaw is, as previously mentioned, the weak chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon. At times, there isnt any present, and the relationship between the elephant and Marlene is what features the most. Not that this is a negative: the relationship and understanding between humans and animals in the movie is just as important as human to human.
It’s ambitious, bold and breathtakingly beautiful: Water For Elephants could just be the most spectacular drama of 2011.