Life, as anyone will tell you, is a constant reminder that even the best laid plans don’t always work out. Take Jacob (Pattinson). One day he’s off to college, about to get his veterinary degree and make love to the woman of his dreams. The next, he runs away and joins the circus!
Based on the best selling novel by Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants” is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Beautifully filmed the film follows the triangle of the aforementioned Jacob, a young man with everything in life heading his way, until his way is altered forever. Hopping a rail car, he soon finds himself in the employ of the Benzini Brother’s Circus, run with a firm hand by August (“Inglourious Basterds” Oscar-winner Waltz), whose wife, Marlena, is also the star attraction. When August attempts to bring in business by featuring an elephant, it is Jacob’s knowledge of animals that links he, August and Marlena in a triangle that gets more intense as each day goes by.
Director Lawrence (“I Am Legend”) has created a visual postcard of Depression era America, his camera catching even the smallest detail. The screenplay, adapted by Academy Award nominee Richard LaGravenese (“The Fisher King,” “The Bridges of Madison County”), is strong, telling the story in a straightforward way that holds your attention throughout. Jack Fisk’s production design is equally well done, giving us a look back to a time that few are alive to remember. All of the above are powered by the music of James Newton Howard, who delivers one of his best scores ever.
But the main attraction here is the performances of the three stars. Witherspoon has been very scarce on screen since winning the Best Actress Oscar in 2005 for “Walk the Line.” In the six years before winning the award she appeared in no fewer than nine films. Since, she has appeared in half that number. Her work here is perfectly nuanced in a role that could have quite easily been cliché’d. Waltz is perfect as August in a role that shows us why that Oscar win was so well deserved. But the surprise here, for me anyway, is Pattinson. Quiet and brooding in the “Twilight” films he seems to jump off the screen here, matching Waltz and Witherspoon scene for scene. Who knew this kid could act?? Well done young man. Applause also to the great Hal Holbrook, whose performance bookends the film. And I would be remiss if I didn’t include praise for Rosie the elephant, Queenie the dog and the other animals that help tell the story.