Let’s get this straight: after seeing this screen adaptation of the Sarah Gruen 2006 novel Water for Elephants, nobody is going to have any romantic notions of running off and joining the circus. Director Francis Lawrence presents a violent and brutish account of the Depression circus world (1931) that at times is difficult to watch; but also is an interesting time piece.
The movie begins when a traveling modern day circus discovers an old man wondering the grounds in a rain storm who is apparently looking for a job. Jacob (Hal Holbrook) has taken leave of his rest home and expresses his desire to join the circus to manager Charlie (Paul Shneider). When Jacob discovers a picture on the wall of a circus disaster from 1931 he recalls a first hand account of what actually went down.
The young Jacob (Robert Pattinson of Twilight), the son of Polish immigrants, had been sent by his parents to Cornell University to follow his dream to study and graduate from veterinary school, but a tragedy (his parents die in a car crash) takes him out of school and throws him into the realm of the Depression world. Unbeknownst to Jacob, his father had signed his house over to the bank in order to finance his education leaving him destitute.
With no place to go, Jacob hops a train (in true Depression form) and finds himself in the midst of a group of roustabouts working for the Benzini Bros. traveling circus. The hobos offer to hide Jacob, but he is soon found out and is threatened with something called “red lining.” (Being thrown from the moving train.) Jacob informs the Benzini Bros benefactor and ring leader August (Christoph Waltz of Inglorious Bastards) that he is a vet and he is offered a job to take care of the animals. The problem here is that Jacob falls for the boss’s wife, Marleena (Reese Witherspoon), and a love triangle ensues. August is a manic drunk, with violent tendencies, and trouble soon follows.
In order to save the failing circus, August purchases an elephant by the name of Rosie and the pachyderm soon becomes the bread basket which fills the coffers. Although Rosie is the star of the show, August has taken to beating the animal in graphic scenes of animal cruelty and this eventually leads to ring leader’s demise.
Hal Holbrook is underused in the film and should have narrated more of the story with his one of a kind voice; Robert Pattinson does a good job of playing the young Jacob while appearing in a better shade of pale; Christoph Waltz is mesmerizing as the bi-polar, drunken ring leader; and Reese is underutilized in the story. All in all this is a good film, but there is one caveat: this is not a children’s movie.
My rating: three out of five pachyderms
Authors note: This movie reminded me of Woodlawn Cemetery outside of Chicago where I grew up. In that cemetery there is a burial ground called the Showmen’s Rest. This plot is where nearly one hundred performers and workers of the Haggenbeck-Wallace train wreck, which occurred on June 22, 1918, were laid to rest. The accounts that I have read indicate that that Haggenbeck-Wallace train had come to a stop on the tracks to get repairs, when a another train, ignoring the red danger signals, plowed into the back of it crushing three passenger cars and derailing the train. The rectangular plot is guarded by statues of elephants with their trunks down (symbolizing mourning).
Don’t forget the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus coming to American Airlines Center in Dallas during July.