From the better part of my movie viewing experience I’ve learned that I do not particularly take to or like movies that start in the present day – or some years later timeframe and then go back decades to tell its primary story. Even though there are a rare few that I do not mind, it just doesn’t pique my interest – this beginning wound up being one that did rub me the wrong way.
The future has never looked any brighter than the day of his graduating test that will license him as a full-fledged vet. Yet with the opening of a door, Jacob’s life changes in a single instant. A committed student, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) never imagined how his world would come crashing down that morning when he runs out of the home he shares with his immigrant Polish parents. Before he can complete his test, he is informed that his parents were killed in a car crash which leaves him destitute. His father was a generous man and even though he was a learned one, he left his son without a home because he was more concerned with getting his son that education than seeing that his clients paid him. Without any future, Jacob sets out for places unknown, walking along the rail line until the night that he actually jumps a rail car and lands right in the middle of the Benzini brother’s circus troupe.
It just takes one day for Jacob to be drawn towards seeing to the welfare of the animals in the show and following a hard day’s labor, he is summoned by the boss and ringmaster August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz). August isn’t impressed with his stowaway until Jacob makes him an offer he cannot refuse – he convinces August of his need for a vet travelling with the troupe. Hired on the spot, Jacob finds himself charmed by the star attraction Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). A quiet woman who would rather work with her horses than interact with fellow acts, Jacob soon realizes why when he learns she is the wife of August – and his protective nature gives Marlena very little freedom. The longer Jacob survives his surroundings the more he sees what a cruel and ugly man August is. His growing feelings for the tender-hearted Marlena won’t allow him to leave but if he doesn’t, he may very well not survive.
I think this was a movie that viewers were either split on or had such conflicting emotions about that it is really hard to know exactly what to say about this book-to-screen adaptation. Based on Sara Gruen’s novel of the same name (trivia fact: this novel was originally written as a part of the NaNoWriMo yearly challenge – isn’t that neat?), I am under the impression that the movie is less violet and graphic in its depictions. I’ll start out with this – Water for Elephants did throw some surprises in from my perspective. I wasn’t expecting much from it nor was I particularly in the mood to watch such a movie when I finally did rent it – to say nothing of it being a busier weekend for me! Nonetheless I did not let those facts stop me and I did get it watched albeit in two different sittings. The movie has a way of drawing us into the story that isn’t often a part of a production’s framework. I cannot put my finger on what it has that most stories do not, but after watching this for less than thirty minutes, I “liked” the movie, and I think this is definitely a film that will enlighten its viewers whether or not it’s for them in short order. For the most part, the story moves at a slower, careful pace yet I was never bored with it. The detail and costumes are breathtaking – I just loved everything about the “look” of the production. From the hairstyles to the costuming and the sets to the accessories, everything looked very period authentic – although I do not profess to be a historic know-it-all.
For those who are familiar with this movie, this may surprise you but nothing bothered me more in this movie – not its themes of extra-marital affairs (more on this later down the page) or its mistreatment of animals as did the contempt and ill-treatment some of the characters had for human life; for mankind. I do not believe that abuse in any form is right and while I disagree with animal abuse, I am also not “affected” by its presence as so many are nor am I an advocate for battered animals. Although some viewers felt that August did love Marlena, I did not. I was constantly appalled by August’s ill use of not only his employees (especially Jacob) but also his wife. If he cared, he would have been kind and considerate towards her – to say nothing of treating her with respect, instead he was obsessed with her and as a result, he wasn’t about to stand around as another man won her heart with tenderness and affection. Jacob is drawn to Marlena early on in the film but she rarely speaks to him – at first. Eventually, that changes; she grows to appreciate his moral ethics and his character. Their eventual love affair is something that is most likely to annoy Christian audiences, but honestly, whether its right or not, I’ve come to expect nothing less from Hollywood, so it would have shocked me had this pair of star-crossed lovers not acted on their attraction – and if there is one thing to be said about them, at least their love grew out of more than a mere night of passion together.
As film productions go, this one was somewhere in the middle on my scale of “worst to best.” Something about it is appealing and engaging without being a truly great, epic story. The cast makes it entertaining if nothing else does because it boasts an academy-award winner and a teen heartthrob – not that I was that impressed with him. *grin* If you like this timeframe (depression era) as an outline to set up the story, then this is worth a rental. It’s melancholy without really needing to be so but I don’t think that the novel was better and if I’d have to guess, I’d say the movie improved on Sara’s words. Just be prepared to question its ethics and morals. In that way, the film is thought-provoking.
(Rated PG13 because… of a clothed sexual scene with some bare leg and movement. There is a smattering of profanity but I don’t recall anything worse than h*ll or da*n. A lot of physical abuse is present including spousal [signs are present such as bruising or a slap across the face] and animal [this is more an implication than filmed] – several men are severely beaten and left for dead. One man nearly kills another but is convinced not to; later, a man is killed and a woman is nearly murdered. An animal is shot to death [impact off-screen] in order to end its suffering and another is glimpsed lying down with severe wounds. A lot of alcohol consumption is present during the film.)