Sunday, 19 June 2011

Film Review: Water For Elephants

Based on Sara Gruen's historical bestseller of the same name, Water for Elephants begins in much the same way as Saving Private Ryan. Instead of the beaches of Normandy, an old geriatric (Hal Halbrook) is found wandering round a circus. Memory jogged of a bygone day, the screen blurs into yesteryear and the old man begins his monologue...

It's 1930s America and the Great Depression is in full swing. But for young Cornell veterinary student Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) the future looks promising. Suddenly hit by an unexpected turn of events, Jacob runs away with the circus and falls head-over-heels for star attraction, Marlena (Witherspoon). Problem is, Marlena is married to circus ringleader August (Waltz) who suffers from a nasty bout of borderline personality disorder. When August acquires an elephant, Rosie (Tai - yes, the elephant has a real name) to help boost the circus' flagging ticket sales, he tasks Jacob and Marlena with training the beast.

Water for Elephants follows that well-worked groove of tragedy, suspense and romance in a way that's difficult to balls up. Indeed, nothing about this ever really brings out the full magic of the circus. The film's central story arc, the forbidden love of Pattinson's Jacob (ironic name given Twilight) and Witherspoon's Marlena barely fizzles. Admittedly it would be unfair to suggest they give inherently bad performances, but they don't exactly capture the imagination either. Pattinson in particular however still appears to be undead, giving the distinct impression he's merely going through the motions in such a forced manner that you wouldn't put bets on a second date. However, one man does pull this from the brink.

Christoph Waltz's meteoric rise to fame in the last two-years is nothing short of astonishing. Since Inglorious Basterds he has above and beyond been the best thing about his respective movies. And it is no different in this case. While Waltz's August isn't necessarily as sadistic Colonel Landa - a comic villain in many ways - there is something altogether more sinister about this character. At first August might seem like your typical pernicious tyrant, but there are glints into an unstable personality suggesting an unpredictability to his actions. In many ways this is a far more frightening prospect than any premeditated ruthlessness.

All said and done, the film is pretty straightforward in a vapid sort of way. Dumb, drunken Polish elephants with a penchant for whiskey aside (great, American Polish-stereotypes embodied in a big beast, subtle), everything seems familiar here. There's some stunning artistry at play thanks to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto whose use of colours make the historical setting all the more vivid, but its stellar cast fail to bring it to life. Ultimately, Water for Elephants leaves a clear trail of footprints in the butter.