WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (12A): On General Release Wednesday 4th May
Roll up, roll up! See what Robert Pattinson does in between filming the latest instalment of Twilight! Water For Elephants is an incredibly familiar yarn that wouldn’t be out of place showing at Sunday matinée and its A-list cast seem to be the only thing that will guarantee it the most fleeting of spotlights.
86-year old Jacob Jankowski (the marvellous Hal Holbrook) wanders nostalgically around a circus parking lot gazing wistfully at the tents. The young owner takes him inside only to find out that the Jacob is an old circus hand himself who survived a famous disaster in the 1930s and sits down to hear the tale of the Benzini Brothers Circus which sets up one long flashback (in a cinematic move that should probably be called The Titanic Manoeuvre).
As a young undergraduate studying veterinary science, young Jacob’s is set up for a promising new life. But when his parents are killed in a car crash, he loses his home and his future. Walking down the railroad tracks in the middle of the night, he hops on board a passing freight train – that of the Benzini Brothers travelling circus. Threatened with the very real prospect of being thrown overboard, Jacob’s medical background saves his skin when the flagging circus acquires an old elephant as a last ditch attempt to pull in punters.
But can Jacob train the elephant before the circus’s tyrannical ringmaster August’s (Christoph Waltz) impatience and violent temperament gets out of hand and Jacob succumbs to the forbidden attraction of his lovely wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon)?
It shines particularly in the costume department – all sequined one-pieces, gigantic feathered headdresses, top hats and red frocked coats which combine well to capture the flavour of the period. But despite the trapeze artists, acrobats, live animals and clowns, it’s a curiously joyless affair – there’s little to love beyond the exotic frippery.
There are no prizes for guessing where the plot’s going – there are few surprises in a film which seems to be on rails in more than one sense. Add to this an overdose of sentimentality and Water For Elephants rapidly becomes a cloying affair, Old Jacob’s parting lines of “I’m not running away, I’m coming home” putting the final hilariously nauseating cherry on a cake built out of predictable schmaltz.
The budding forbidden love affair between Jacob and Marlena is completely without chemistry – Witherspoon in particular seems oddly emotionless and Pattinson is content to stare glassy-eyed into the middle distance foras if he might slip into outright catatonia at any moment. Even Waltz – delightfully devilish in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and easily the highlight of Water For Elephants delivers a diluted performance as the unpredictably savage August.
In truth, the star of the show is the four ton bulk of Rosie the elephant who easily outshines her human co-stars in every scene. The greatest show on earth this ain’t.