From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:
‘Water for Elephants’
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Richard LaGravenese (screenplay), Sara Gruen (novel)
Starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz
Review by Santiago Ramos
We shouldn’t take for granted the little spark of genius necessary for making Water for Elephants look like it takes place in the circus world of the 1930s. The sundry references to the Depression are to a certain degree superfluous. The design team did an excellent job of re-creating the world of circus magic, as well as the texture and costumes of that decade, and of making the two things distinguishable, yet united. Perhaps they overdid it with the loud, chichi outfits of maniacal circus owner August Rosenbluth (Christopher Waltz), but, after all, he is a maniacal circus owner.
Hal Holbrook plays a 90-plus year-old retirement home escapee and veteran of the circus named Jacob Jankowski, who narrates the story at the beginning and end of the film. From the present day we travel back to the 1930s to see him (now played by Robert Pattinson) as a hopeful and fresh-faced senior at Cornell University, about to pass his final exams and earn his license as a veterinarian. But before this all-but certain triumph, tragedy rips away any sense of purpose he had in life. He runs away from Cornell without getting his degree. His plan is to travel to the next city and try to find a job.
Instead, on a desperate whim, he decides to jump (illegally) onto a passing train and, as destiny would have it, he jumps right onto Mr. Rosenbluth’s Benzini Brothers traveling circus train. Circuses during the Depression did not make a lot of money, and leeches were not treated kindly. But Jacob was also lucky to jump onto the right car in the train. Mr. Erwin (John Ayleward), a lowly by respected longtime member of the circus, takes him under his wing and finds him a job. Jacob’s skills as a veterinarian, once they are discovered by the Benzini Brothers’ owner, August Rosenbluth, allow him to become a prominent member of the circus team, and in no time, Jacob starts receiving frequent invitations to the fancy dinners that the lowly clowns and “roustabouts” never get to enjoy.
Jacob has a difficult time in the circus, however, because he can’t go against his nagging conscience. First, when Rosenbluth asks him to examine an abscess on the foot of his star-attraction white horse, Jacob tells him the honest, professional truth: there is nothing to do for this horse but to put him down and end his suffering. When Rosenbluth tells him—in perhaps the best couple of lines in the film—that any man who cares too much about the suffering of animals “has not seen very many men suffer,” Jacob ignores him and secretly euthanizes the horse himself. He is almost tossed out of the circus (and train) after doing this, but Rosenbluth has mercy on him. And he also needs Jacob to tame and train his new attraction, which would replace the dead horse: a large elephant named Rosie.
While training Rosie, Jacob has to work closely with a woman he had already fallen in love with on first sight, but who is also already taken. Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) is a beautiful woman, a talented circus entertainer, and not bad at making a show with Rosie the elephant. Unfortunately, she is married to August. August, however, we soon discover to be abusive and tyrannical to his wife, the circus animals, and the roustabouts. Jacob’s struggle to decide what to do about all this will be the spark for the end of the movie.
The end of the movie is also very strange. Rosie the elephant, of course, is a main attraction, and the funny tricks she can do are one of the reasons why people will go to see the movie. But Rosie is also a wild animal. What is strange is the way that Marlena and Jacob are able to ignore and overcome the chaotic elements that are placed within the movie itself, all in plain sight. There are animals unhappily caged, some of them frightening. There is foreboding even in the roar of a toothless lion. Rosie herself is not so easily domesticated, mostly because you can’t fully domesticate an elephant. The specter of uncontrollable nature is all around. Beyond that, the exploitation of the roustabouts and other lowly workers of the circus, in the hands of the well-coiffed August, is real and brutal. They appear to have a quite good case for revolution, and they are, like the caged animals, unhappy. But when they do revolt, the result is not glory, but the death of innocent people.
These interesting conflicts are left unresolved; they are background staging for a love story. Somehow Jacob and Marlena manage to survive the chaos, and not to be affected psychically (and only a little physically) by the violence around them. It’s as if their story were merely superimposed on the grimy backdrop full of suffering. For this reason, the story feels contrived, even magical. At one point, even Rosie herself develops a moral conscience and spectacularly comes to Marlene’s aid.
Its as if there are two movies in one: an interesting one in the background, about tyranny, exploitation, revolt, and poverty, and a feel-good, distracting one in the foreground, with a talented elephant as an almost extra-cinematic attraction.
But the set design was truly great.
Santiago Ramos is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College.