Water for Elephants

For Notebook Fans


23 April 2011| No Comments on Water for Elephants     by Sean Chavel


One of the better mushy romantic melodramas of recent years. Water for Elephants is about a travelling circus during the Great Depression and it stars Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon who both look about the same age. You got the love story between them stifled by the fact that Witherspoon’s showbiz ingénue Marlena is married to the circus owner August played by Christoph Waltz. This is the same Waltz who was masterful as Colonel Landa in “Inglorious Basterds.” It took me awhile to get wrapped up in Pattinson who makes me recoil on sight but it took only an instant to fall under the spell of Waltz. Classic beauty Witherspoon has rarely looked better, and I usually hate flapper-era haircuts. Lovingly crafted and with a genuine heart, it won me over despite script coincidences. Girls who customarily go “Awwwww so sweet” will like it even more.

With Pattinson, he’s going for low-decibel sincerity. He’s too nice and almost dull, at least, at first. But with humble young man attributes he convinces as A) Impressionable young man experiencing the world for the first time, and B) Straight-forward and honorable. Pattinson is allowed to convey subtleties and nuances because of these traits. Consider it a trade-off. Moreover, he did the unexpected job of winning me over in ways an actor like, say Zac Efron, could never win me over. I earnestly thought that maybe, just maybe, Pattinson had genuine stuff inside him. He does now to a fair but limited degree. I will never think that of Zac.

Willowy and slender-figured Witherspoon can ride a horse or elephant beautifully, and can murmur to animals without making the scene tone-deaf – it’s a silky whisper and not a soggy let’s talk to some animals nonsense. She is as natural here as she was in “Walk the Line.” The Tennessee-bred actress looks right at home. She also doesn’t have any scenes where she weakly pouts in distress and walks away. She walks into the drama of a scene, even if it means putting herself in harm’s way.

There are no words that do justice to Waltz’s performance as the charming but easily incensed circus master, August. He is orchestrating a massive show and managing dozens of workers who deign to his whims. He is a puppetmaster who makes the ones closest to him feel good or feel vulnerable. He believes he is fully staffed until he promotes Jacob from unpaid manure shoveller to nine bucks a week veterinarian. This puts Jacob in charge of the animals but August insists that elephants and other animals should be abused in order to make them perform right. When Marlena becomes too exposed to August’s sadism towards people as well as animals, and becomes magnetized by Jacob’s eyes, the time to jump matrimony flecks as a possibility. Also on the payroll are two heavies who work beside August whom are ready to throw off, literally, anybody from a moving train. August has other imaginative punishments in stock, too.

The cinematography is almost too arty. Too many early scenes of shadows hiding one-half of a person’s face. The picture registers at almost too low a shade of tint at times. But there are some fine wispy effects, especially in the soft hues under circus lights. The circus performances are shot as a fancy slow-motion ballet. There is a kissing scene, man on top of girl, done in a very low light – you want a lamp turned on. The good news is that it is directed better than most other Hollywood love scenes for the scene isn’t clipped, letting smooching and emotions build well over ten seconds. Maybe thirty seconds. Awwwww.

The story is all told in the flashback memory of a contemporary old man with splendid integrity (played by Hal Holbrook, who touched us deeply in “Into the Wild”). Pattinson has a better haircut and better color in his face than he does in the “Twilight” movies. When Witherspoon says “I love you” it sounds so good that I wish every woman I have ever been with in my life had said it like the way she says it. But the only thing you really need to know here is that if you savored “The Notebook” (2004) then you will like this just as much, too.

122 Minutes. Rated PG-13.


Film Cousin: “Racing with the Moon” (1984); “A River Runs Through It” (1992); “A Walk in the Clouds” (1995); “The Notebook” (2004).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of flickminute.com, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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