A few weeks ago I had the privilege of meeting Hal Holbrook while I was in Malibu. He had come to the Christian Scholars Conference and asked to perform Mark Twain on Religion. I hear it was a classic. I unfortunately was in my own session discussing one of my books. But in any case, it was a pleasure to meet him and I thanked him for all the wonderful roles he has played.
His most recent role is at the beginning and end of the film ‘Water for Elephants’ where he plays the elderly Jacob Jankowski, a Polish man who trained to be a vet at Cornell, but ended up being an animal minder in the Benzini Bros. circus. He is wonderful in this bit part which frames the entire movie, and makes the bulk of the film a flash back. The movie in essence is a circus movie, and what a circus that circus was, as it turns out.
Unfortunately, this film came out during the Dead Zone, by which I mean early January until late April. And in the Dead Zone there are a lot of bad films, and unfortunately any good films that are released during these months usually die on the vine, as they are not well attended, and sometimes not even well reviewed. This I am afraid is what happened to Water for Elephants which, while not a perfect film is in many ways an excellent film, not least for the fabulous acting of Christopher Waltz who has gone from playing a slightly insane Nazi to playing a slightly insane (and insanely jealous and violent) circus owner and ringmaster named August.
This movie is well paced (it clocks in at 2 hours and 1 minute) it is colorful as circuses are, and beautifully filmed (I especially loved the night scenes as the steam train is puffing away under a moonlit sky), and it has an interesting plot and interesting characters. The time is 1931 during the Depression, and people are looking for a diversion from their ordinary, hum-drum, even unemployed lives. Then the circus comes to town and for a few brief minutes or hours, the mind of the masses is taken to a different place, a different mardi gras like world with odd looking people, remarkably scary animals amazing daredevil stunts, and the like. I have seen numerous circuses in my time (including the Moscow circus in Moscow) and I have to say that this movie is quite believable in its tales of the mayhem and macabre, the transient lives of a troupe who sometimes are troopers, and sometimes feel like they have been hijacked into a menagerie that is an army.
At the heart of this movie however is a love story. Reese Witherspoon is quite effective as Marlena the beautiful former orphan the object d’desire and the star of the circus and the wife of August. Robert Pattinson plays the young Jacob, the heartthrob veterinarian down on his luck and having tragically lost his parents who hops on a train one day, only discover that it is the circus train. Pattinson is of course handsome, but it is hard to tell whether his acting is under-stated deliberately, or he is under-acting. In any case the contrast between his acting and the brilliant performance by Waltz is noticeable and is one of the flaws in the film. Witherspoon is however a nice buffer between the two.
The story actually also centers on a horse who founders and has to be put down, which Marlena used to ride, and a Elephant named Rosie who only responds to commands in Polish! Enter Jacob as the hero who can train her properly. But the sexual tension between Jacob and Marlena on the one hand and the jealousy between August and Jacob on the other hand is what makes this an interesting, smoldering love story worth watching. As it turns out, the real three ring circus is composed of three irrationally behaving humans, while the animals seem mostly tame and innocent.
I thoroughly enjoyed this period piece, and in places it made me cry, reminding me of when I first went to the circus as a child in the 50s. As it turns out, the circus in the 30s was not much different than the circus that showed up at county fairs in the 50s. If you have a chance to see this movie, it is in fact a good date movie, with a good romantic core. As it turns out ‘Water for Elephants’ should have brought refreshment to more than thirsty pachyderms. It should have brought some refreshment to those who go to the movies longing for a poignant love story. if you have a chance still to see this film in the theaters, even in the dollar theater as I did, you should go. It’s PG 13 rating is accurate.