Above all else, Water for Elephants is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking. Each frame of the picture could be a painting that perfectly captures Depression-era America through the collective eyes of a traveling circus.
Lush filmmaking is a priceless commodity and Water for Elephants achieves that in spades. From its opening moments through the closing credits, audiences are in for a visual treat. Coupled with impeccable storytelling, the film is nearly perfect. The screenplay effectively captures Sara Gruen's prose from the Water for Elephants novel. The emotions, power and people that inhabit Gruen's world are presented in the film with grace.
But, what truly sets Water for Elephants apart from other novel adaptations of late is its cast. With two Oscar winners anchoring the cast, Christoph Waltz and Reese Witherspoon, the acting pedigree is top notch.
Yet, it is Robert Pattinson who shines and demands attention in every scene he is in. Pattinson is, no question, an enormous star thanks to his turn in the Twilight Saga. But, he is legions away from his Edward Cullen vampire with his role as Jacob in Water for Elephants. Yes, Twilight fans, he is playing a character named Jacob! Pattinson pulls from every corner of his acting palette with his performance in Water for Elephants. His turn is deeply moving as a conflicted man just entering adulthood who saw his world turn upside down which forced him into the life of a traveling circus worker.
Pattinson's onscreen chemistry with Reese Witherspoon, who plays his love interest Marlena, is electric. Witherspoon loses herself in the role with romantic abandon. The Oscar winner is always a joy to watch, but in Water for Elephants, she takes her acting prowess to new levels. Like Jacob, she too is conflicted. Her Marlena is in a mean marriage with August (Waltz) when Jacob joins the circus crew and immediately, solely through Witherspoon's eyes, audiences first learn of her amorous spark for the young veterinary student.
She also brings an element of female empowerment to her role that has been rarely seen in Depression-era female characters of late. She is one part Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde and another part Sally Field in Places in the Heart. Witherspoon's tete-a-tete with her onscreen husband in Christoph Waltz is powerful to say the least. Through her performance, Witherspoon allows the audience to see the vulnerability in Waltz's portrayal and brings out the sensitive side of an actor making a name for himself in playing evil villains recently.
Waltz is a great villain. That much has more than been established.
Yet, in Water for Elephants, Waltz manages to capture a character that is as much a man of his times as someone who is downright evil. He is equally merciless to the animals in the circus as he is his employees. When someone is no longer needed, they get tossed off the train. Yeah, not a good way to be fired! Yet, audiences can stomach Waltz and what he does onscreen in Water for Elephants solely for one reason: He believes what he is doing is right.
As a society, we have come a long way in terms of how we treat animals. Circus animals are still notoriously not kept in the best of conditions in circuses today, much less the circuses of the 1930s. The scenes in the film where Rosie the elephant or even Reese's Marlena are abused are incredibly difficult to watch. But they are important to the story. It helps the audience pull for Marlena and Jacob to get together and run far away from the abusive August.
Hands down, Water for Elephants is the best movie of the year. Its lush landscape, coupled with top notch performances from its cast, makes it the first true must-see movie of 2011.
Out of five stars…
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