"To talent and illusion!" is the toast as three circus people raise their glasses in a posh Depression-era state car, a train full of animals and roustabouts and fat ladies and strongmen pulling them to fame and fortune in the next town. In that moment, there is some hope that everything might just work out. That Jacob, the new stowaway who also happens to be a vet, will improve the quality of life of the animals. That Marlena, the star performer, will attract the crowds and find that her love and dedication will be enough to change a man's character. That August, her despotic husband and the circus ringmaster, is really just misunderstood. But then the moment passes, that optimism itself an illusion.
Water for Elephants, an adaptation of the Sara Gruen bestseller about the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931, brings its big top to the big screen. Starring Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, Robert Pattinson as Jacob, and Christoph Waltz as August, the tale sticks closely (though not precisely) to the novel and seems likely to please fans of the book—in addition to picking up some Twi-hards who are keen to see Pattinson in any role.
The story is told in flashback when an elderly Jacob wanders onto modern-day circus grounds in search of a respite from his lonely and boring life at a retirement home. He finds a listening ear when he mentions he was with the Benzini Bros. in 1931, the year of its big disaster.
In fact, it's a personal disaster that sets the stage for Jacob's life with circus. Raised in a loving home with parents who sacrificed to put their only son through veterinary school at Cornell, their death in a car accident on the day of his final exams—and the subsequent loss of the family home—led young Jacob to join the masses of men traveling in search of work. On an impulse, he jumps aboard a train that turns out to belong to the Benzini Brothers. "I don't know if I picked that train, or that train picked me," says Jacob. "I'd like to think my parents sent it to me."
He finds himself immersed in a new life with its own language ("rubes," "coochie girls," "the spec," etc.), exotic animals, and dangerous people, all realized in a lush production that makes this new world palpable and enchanting. Under the direction of Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), Water for Elephants is a kind of Depression-era fairy tale, with twinkling lights, rich colors, and a score (James Newton Howard of The Dark Knight, King Kong, and I Am Legend) that swells and swoons. And like the classic (pre-Disney) fairy tales, darkness and violence haunt the story.
An interloper in danger from the moment he jumps on the train, Jacob is fortunate to have a kindly drunk named Camel take him under his wing. Camel helps orient Jacob and gets him a meeting with August, the circus boss and a man who would affect Jacob's future in ways he couldn't know at the moment he was just looking for a job.
A mercurial character, August is played in chilling complexity by Christoph Waltz, tapping into some of the energy that won him an Oscar for his portrayal of a sadistic Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds. August presides over his circus with a twisted devotion that has him throwing weaker men from the moving train (a practice called "redlining") in order that he have enough money to pay the remaining workers. This twisted devotion can also be seen in is relationship with his wife Marlena, his star attraction—she rides a white horse—and the focus of his violent and obsessive love.
Marlena and Jacob bond quickly over their shared desire to see the circus animals treated with dignity and compassion. And it's a testament to the complexity of the storytelling that even while falling in love with a married woman, Jacob is the tale's moral compass. When the circus acquires an abandoned elephant named Rosie, she becomes another compass, a backdrop against which each person's character is clearly exposed. Rosie will play a pivotal role in both forcing and resolving the great Benzini Brothers Circus disaster of 1931.
Perhaps it's a function of the movie's good looks, but I would argue that the book does a better job of imbuing the story with menace and danger. Save August, some of the rougher characters are missing or softened by lack of screen time. There is a building sense of tension and danger in the movie, but I didn't feel the same kind of devastating anxiety that the book inspired. There are also some brutally earnest moments that had me cringing for the actor having to say lines about the beauty that can be found in the filth. But these quibbles are minor. As Gruen has noted, the screenwriters took a book that takes about 14 hours to read and turned it into a movie that's about 2 hours long. Some things will be lost, but the romance and magic of the circus remains vibrant.
Even though he is a deeply troubled man, August is also an astute observer of life. And as he points out, "The world is run on tricks, everyone plays." With so many entertainment options these days (and probably also due to heightened concern for animal and human welfare), circuses have less prominence in our culture than they did in the 1930s. But as Water for Elephant reminds us, circuses showcase real people working hard to entertain the real people right in front of them. There is no substitute for sweat. This form of entertainment is visceral. And there is something deeply true about the world under the Big Top. We use all manner of tricks to make others laugh and cry and jump, and it's a game we all want to play, a game which we all want to succeed. We all want the crowd to love us. And I think the crowd will love this movie.Discussion starters
- Toward the beginning of the movie, Jacob is told that "The only people standing at the end of the Depression are going to be those who take what they need to survive." What do you think of this advice? Who in the movie lived by this motto? Who didn't?
- Did you ever feel sympathetic to August? Why or why not?
- Discuss August's assertion that, "The only really authentic miracle is success. It washes away old sins." Do you think the success he had with Rosie had the potential to change him?
- Have you ever been to a circus? Did you enjoy it? Why or why not? How did you feel about their treatment of the animals? How is that similar or different than a zoo?
The Family CornerParents to Consider
Water for Elephants is rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content. Violence is a fact of life with Benzini Brothers. Much of it is implied, but several people are beaten. Rosie the elephant is also beaten, though much of it happens off screen. Marlene and Jacob have a romantic relationship while she is married to August. There is no nudity in their one sex scene, though but a dancer with the circus is shown topless from the back.
Photos © 20th Century Fox.
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