By Carolyn Williams
“Water for Elephants” is director Francis Lawrence’s (“I Am Legend”) latest film, based on the 2006 novel by Sara Gruen of the same name. Despite the hype surrounding such a high-profile adaptation of the extremely successful book, the movie manages to fall far short of expectations.
The movie starts, as does the book, with the classic storytelling motif of an elderly person reminiscing. In this case, it is Jacob Jankowski, the film’s leading man. Upset that his son forgot to take him to the circus in town, he leaves his nursing home to see for himself. Having missed the show, he begins to share his own circus memories with the audience, which becomes completely attentive when he reveals he witnessed one of the greatest circus disasters of all time.
The real story begins in 1931, when Jacob (Robert Pattinson), then a veterinary student studying at Cornell, learns of his parents’ sudden deaths. Blindsided and grieving, he is informed by a callous bank employee that his parents had mortgaged everything to finance his Depression-age Ivy League education. Literally broke and homeless, he begins to walk, eventually hopping a train. Little does he know he’s accidentally run away with the circus.
Jacob decides to stick around, working as a hand on the show, and is dumbstruck by what he sees. The show, the Benzini Brothers, appears a sort of miracle in light of the sudden upheaval in his life, and, transfixed, he decides to stay. August (Christopher Waltz), the show’s ringmaster and the film’s antagonist, is eager to have Jacob when he learns Jacob studied veterinary sciences at Cornell despite the fact that he never graduated because the show’s great rival, Ringling Brothers, cannot boast such a distinction.
But Jacob soon falls in love with more than the show when he meets Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), August’s wife and the star attraction of the show. The two share a compassion for the animals August callously abuses and are further brought together by the arrival of the true heroine of the story, the enigmatic and charming Rosie, the show’s new elephant. Together, they create a new routine which garners some much needed cash flow, and briefly eases tensions, before reality and August’s mercurial temper brings everything crashing down around their ears.
The movie, although aesthetically appealing and adapted well from the book falls somewhat flat.
“The set and the cinematography were beautiful, but the romantic chemistry between Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon was virtually nonexistent,” Ava Giuliano ’14 said.
Indeed, most of the complaints made against the film have been in reference to the lackluster romance between Pattinson and Witherspoon. Their portrayal of love lacks any definite conviction, and between their less than inspiring interchanges, the middle of the film definitely drags before picking up for the exciting disaster scene.
“I thought it stayed true to the book and was very satisfying in that aspect. Reese Witherspoon’s acting was the only thing that in my opinion left something to be desired, along with the strange introduction of the sex scene,” Kate Wilsterman ’14 said. “The emotion and empathy the film evoked, however, stayed true to the novel itself.”
Still, stripped of the vampire trappings of “Twilight,” Pattinson’s portrayal of Jacob proves that he’s a much better actor than he’s often given credit for. He is overshadowedby the dynamic performance of recent Best Supporting Actor winner Waltz as the paranoid schizophrenic August. Overall, the film’s historically accurate portrayal of the circus envisioned in Gruen’s novel makes “Water for Elephants” worth seeing for those who enjoyed the book.