Water For Elephants


Robert Pattinson packs his trunk for the circus.

Water for Elephants review

Roll up, roll up ! Ladeez and gentlemen, prepare to experience Robert Pattinson’s death-defying attempt at a fang-free romantic lead, without a net.

The trillion-strong Twihard hordes ensure that R-Pattz can open a movie – but can he shine playing a live human, or only sparkle as Twilight’s undead Ed?

The question’s even more pressing after the halfbaked James Dean act he pulled in last year’s Remember Me. Drum roll, deathly hush… and glory be, he’s very watchable indeed in this lush, Depression-era melodrama, based on Sara Gruen’s US bestseller.

Pattinson plays orphaned veterinary student Jacob Jankowski, who steals a ride on the Benzini Bros circus train in 1931. First he tumbles into a job as a vet – and then into a forbidden love affair with married Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the big top’s star attraction.

True, playing a gauche, lovestruck college kid isn’t a huge stretch for Pattinson. But Francis Lawrence’s film taps into his talent for tense, yearning love scenes in which small gestures speak volumes.

As do big ones, when he puts Marlena’s terminally lame horse out of its misery, rather than let her domineering ringmaster husband August (Christoph Waltz) work it to death, in a scene typical of the film’s sentimentality.

Past master

If you want to put a label on it, WFE is a women’s picture, the way they used to make ’em, when male stars flaunted tears without attracting cries of “Grow a pair!” This sob-stuff is tailor-made Rob-stuff, frankly.

He’s anchoring a movie that’s old-fashioned in the best sense; one that likes its spectacle big and spangly (lions and tigers and coochie girls, oh my!) and its emotional arc bigger, so Jacob’s mixture of restrained doe-eyed suffering, idealism, and hot-headed protectiveness fits it like a tuxedo.

Believability in a period role takes some doing, but Pattinson’s understated aw-shucks courtesy and retro Montgomery Clift vibe pulls it off with élan.

Built as a solid, simple tale (Hal Holbrook’s crustily aged Jacob narrates it in an unfussy top-andtail framing device), the central love story is the tentpole here.

We’re talking two acts’ worth of trembling longing, as Jacob and Marlena eye one another across Rosie, the elephant that August acquires for Jacob to train up as a star act. Such simmering requires major chemistry between the leads.

Thankfully, Reese Witherspoon, whose Jean Harlow-styled Marlena is both caged bird and weary pragmatist, brings a nicely nuanced ambivalence to her role, even if she’s a little hard-boiled for taste.

Drawn to Jacob, but protective of the schizoid husband who rescued her from small-town poverty, her deft mixture of risk-taking and reluctance gives some welcome tension to their growing attraction.

But Pattinson isn’t the only one proving himself in the ring. With WFE, director Lawrence graduates from I Am Legend and Constantine, creating a classy if conventional prestige piece.

Gone is that splintery, MTV-maestro jigsaw style, replaced by a plush old Hollywood panoply of circus life and luscious, money-maker star close-ups. Neither he nor scribe Richard LaGravenese mess with Gruens’ story structure, presumably because it’s burnt into the brains of so many book-clubbers.

Landa opportunity

To their credit, they plant the love story in a grit-and-glitter look at a Depression circus, showing the grift, violence and near-bankruptcy behind the tinsel and tights.

Christoph Waltz’s August is key to this, an edgy, seductive bundle of the charm and ruthless cruelty needed to keep the show on the road. On the downside, delivering a muted multiplex version of Hans Landa doesn’t exactly stretch him.

Pitching hard to be a romantic epic in the English Patient mould, Water For Elephants has the look and sound down pat (Rodrigo Prieto’s golden-glazed visuals, James Newton Howard’s swelling strings, the sumptuous production design).

But, hamstrung by its glossy romantic simplicity, an all-round shortage of surprises, and a sex-and-violence-suppressing 12A cert, it simply can’t muster the necessary emotional heft and narrative sweep.

Where it does score is by stirring in a huge crowd-pleasing dollop of animal magic. Rosie the elephant is 9,000lbs of lemonade-stealing charisma, whose hidden tricks provide several key plot points and are bound to elicit industrial amounts of “aw”-ing.

When August sets about her with a bull-hook, hearts will break. If Water had been released in time for awards season, Rosie would’ve been the film’s one sizeable shoo-in.


A swoony, enjoyable, old-time romance whose best acts are a period-perfect Pattinson and a playful pachyderm. But despite its best endeavours, it can’t quite punch above ’plex-pleasing weight.

Film Details

User Reviews

    • willow138

      Apr 29th 2011, 0:43

      I am so glad to read a positive review of WFE I loved the book and the trailer looks ace. So many people who dislike the Twilight saga are set on dissing anything with Rob Taylor or Kristen in. I just hope people will see past the twihate and love this film.

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    • writerdave87

      Apr 30th 2011, 23:08

      No sweat Willow I loathe the Twilight juggernaut with a passion but I'm interested in seeing both this and the action movie with Lautner. I don't think either of them are particularly talented actors but given they've only really had dialogue from Twilight to act out we could all be pleasantly surprised...

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    • Ceciliaonfire

      May 2nd 2011, 8:06

      Yes, I think the review gives a pretty good picture of the film: it's like a"real" movie from way back when, with beautiful sets, stars and a sentimental story at its centre. Great entertainment value, but nothing you ponder afterwards. A bestseller filming of a bestseller book. I really enjoy Reese Witherspoon, and I think the part of Jacob fit Robert Pattinson. What will be truly interesting is the day he, or any of his co-stars in the Twilight venture, take on something out of character, like when Tom Cruise did Born on the 4th of July or Jim Carrey did Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind..

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    • writerdave87

      May 3rd 2011, 13:06

      You could argue Kirsten Stewart in Runaways was a bit of a jump? She was pretty good in that.

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    • QT1234567

      May 11th 2011, 22:41

      Wouldn’t go to see this film if you paid me £1 million. The ADI footage of ‘elephant training techniques’ shows me all I need to see. Horrific - if unsurprising. That’s how you train big wild animals – don’t believe for a second anyone that tells you otherwise.

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    • willow138

      May 26th 2011, 0:23


      ok so have seen it now. it was a lovely moving movie which is well worth a peek. Didn't end quite the way i would have hoped though. Also that old man must be playing like a 100 year old seeing as r patz is clearly in his mid 20s yet in the present hasa 71 year old son.LOL

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