It’s America in 1931 and the realities of the Great Depression followed by the death of his parents leads Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) to seek refuge with other outcasts in the circus where he can put his uncompleted veterinarian studies to use. He primarily cares for the circus’s new elephant, who is the real star of the film, and inconveniently falls in love with the wife of the circus’s tyrannical owner. Despite the potential offered by the film being almost entirely set in the transgressive space of the Big Top, where cultural norms were traditionally turned on their heads, and the transient space of the train that takes the performers from town to town, this adaptation of Sara Gruen’s popular novel is simply a pleasant exercise in idealised nostalgia and romance. It’s certainly a far cry from the dark gothic sensibilities of the HBO Depression era circus series Carnivàle.
As the handsome, young romantic lead, Pattinson certainly fits the part and the Twilight Saga franchise star has an undeniable onscreen presence with his brooding James Dean-type looks. Whether Pattinson is set to become the next James Franco or the next Luke Perry remains to be seen, but while there’s nothing remarkable about his performance in Water for Elephants he doesn’t do himself any harm either. Reese Witherspoon is as reliable as ever as the film’s object of desire, and her assertive onscreen persona helps to make us forget that her character does little but react to the men. To complete the film’s Oedipal love triangle is the real standout performance by Christoph Waltz as the villainous circus owner August. Waltz manages to convey the alarming psychotic nature of this potentially stock-standard character who so easily flies between charismatic joviality and violent fury.
Director Francis Lawrence (who previously made the very different films I Am Legend and Constantine) has generated a mostly whimsical tone for Water for Elephants that only pays lip service to the issues it raises. Exploited workers, crowd grifting and poor treatment of the animals in captivity are all given a romanticised sheen to ensure the film never becomes anything more than an unchallenging love story. August is clearly identified as the villain because he is callous and sometimes wilfully cruel to the animals, but beyond that the film glosses over the more institutionalised neglect and abuse suffered by many circus animals.
Water for Elephants does at times attempt to provide some broader social commentary. An alcoholic character bemoans the social and health effects of Prohibition as a comment about the harm caused by the criminalisation of addictive substances, but the issue is never fully explored. Along with the power of illusion, following your dreams and doing what is morally right instead of acting according to economic necessity are the major themes that run throughout the film. However, this also seems to get lost in the mix when the film increasingly falls back on simply using violence to restore order.
Water for Elephants is nevertheless a satisfactory midday movie. There is something almost reassuring about its desire to tell a sweet and simple romance story against its fascinating, albeit heavily romanticised, circus setting. It lacks the humour and charm to elevate itself above its modest generic ambitions, but it’s a perfectly enjoyable piece of pulp cinema that successfully repackages archetypal characters and scenarios.