By Scott Martin
Water for Elephants, USA, 2011
I remember being a child and watching Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) for the first time. Even then, I was drawn to the idea that a film about a circus can represent so many things – a sense of belonging, people constantly being on the move and on the run, faith, and illusion – but, at the same time, it was a disappointing introduction to circus films. It’s certainly not the one I would make my kids watch first. I’d probably start them off on Steve Miner’s Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (1991), though that’s more about a fair than a circus; but I digress. After Greatest Show ended, I didn’t feel much; I appreciated the spectacle, but not the people within it. It’s regarded as a great film by most people, but I don’t think so; not even a good film.
Good movies leave you with the sense that they were there, and they give you a pleasant feeling, no matter the content. Great movies, you can touch; that sense of remembrance is tangible, and when the movie is over, you want more. Water for Elephants is a great movie, and probably the best circus movie I’ve seen.
It’s told with the same structure as James Cameron’s Titanic (1997): an old man comes too late to a circus, right when they’re breaking everything down and closing up. It’s present day, or so we can assume (no time is given). The old man is Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) and he sits down with a ticket-taker named Charlie (Paul Schneider) to tell the story of the greatest circus disaster of all time: the destruction, and final show, of the Benzini Bros. traveling spectacle. In this story, all told through flashback, we see the younger Jacob (Robert Pattinson) become an orphan, drop out of college, and hop on the first train out of town. It just so happens to be a circus train, and it just so happens to belong to a man named August (Christoph Waltz), a dark man with an iron grip. August, the show’s master of ceremonies, is married to the star attraction, Marlena Rosenbluth (Reese Witherspoon). Jacob’s family immigrated from Poland right before the Great Depression, and spent money they didn’t have to send Jacob to Cornell University to study veterinary sciences.
Of course, as far as August is concerned, Jacob is merely a stowaway on a train where men are tossed off for whatever August deems fit. Sometimes it’s only to make room for more men, sometimes it’s for “breaking the law.” There isn’t much of a law on the Benzini train, only what August and his security team decide. I can imagine that they’re fair, as long as you don’t get in the way. Once you step out of line, though, you’re a spot on the hill passing by. There’s the immediate threat for Jacob: he can either grease August’s wheels, or become grease on the train’s. He tells the boss that his star horse is fatally ill, that she needs to be put down, and that he’s sure the Ringling Brothers would be happy to have a vet on their staff. Oh, how August hates those damn Ringling Brothers; a good call on Jacob’s part, as August hires him almost immediately.
It should be stated that the film does follow a familiar formula, similar in structure, again, to Titanic: forbidden love, insane jealousy, and a preventable disaster. What sets this film apart, however, is that it takes a more malevolent and personal tone with its characters. While it is a fantasy tale, and a film firmly about believing in the power of illusion and faith, there are darker angles at work, and each angle feels rooted into the ground, as realistic as a movie about a circus in 1931 can be. Prohibition lingers in the air, there are political diatribes, the music is spot-on accurate and influential to what goes through the character’s minds, and the romance and jealousy are utterly believable.
Credit must go to the actors. Pattinson continues to grow out of Edward Cullen from the Twilight films and into his own non-glittering skin. He showed genuine promise in Allen Coulter’s Remember Me (2010), and here he’s so completely in character that I forgot I was watching Robert Pattinson; he has the stuff leading men are made of. Waltz proves his Oscar win for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) was no fluke; his August is a deep man, played with conviction, and it’s that commitment to his larger-than-life, yet never over-the-top performance that helps ground the film. It’s beautiful work.
In the Great Depression, I can imagine that if you find a life, you stick to it with all you can. The circus has found their life, however fleeting, on that train. August protects it with all he can: a brutal security team, and his own iron fist. Waltz never chews the scenery, but instead allows for smaller, subtle moments to collect; that train is his own miniature American dream. Francis Lawrence, the director whom you might recall from Constantine (2005) and I Am Legend (2007), now has his own large-scale American classic; American, at least, in ideal. The film is adapted beautifully from Sara Gruen’s novel of the same name by Richard LaGravenese, who should be up for some sort of award. Really, most of the people involved should be, especially Waltz. I’m hoping this is a film that will live on past this year. It deserves to.
August has spent his newly found fortune, under which he was cracking, to buy a new star attraction animal for Marlena, an elephant named Rosie. Rosie, in some interesting ways, comes to be August’s counterpart and foil. She represents, as an elephant in the room, the embodiment of his brutality and anger. With her presence, and her own larger-than-life demeanor, the film subconsciously allows for August to become bigger himself, until everything falls down. I will remember this film more fondly as the days follow, and certainly better than The Greatest Show on Earth. This is probably the circus movie I’ll start my kids on, even before Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com