Robert Pattinson, who became an overnight heartthrob when he played that pasty-faced vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight movies, is summoned to flex his acting chops in Water for Elephants. Beautifully mounted but lacking emotional depth, this epic-sized drama sees Pattinson play a young veterinary student named Jacob who loses his parents during the Depression, following which he hops on a train that belongs to a traveling circus, and finds a life among the performers and animals.
The circus is owned by the sadistic August Rosenbluth (played by Christoph Waltz), who has little compassion for the men or beasts that earn him his livelihood. His young wife Marlena (played by Reese Witherspoon) is the star showgirl, a bareback horse-rider who finds a kindred spirit in Jacob. When August acquires an elephant to be Marlena’s new ride, Jacob is given the task of training the lazy pachyderm. Inevitably, Jacob and Marlena fall in love, and August is less than pleased.
Despite its old-fashioned charm that comes no doubt from the realistic sets and handsome photography, Water for Elephants feels too timid, too bland for a film that’s essentially the story of a forbidden romance. Pattinson continues to brood in soft focus, and even the usually dependable Witherspoon seems to have lost some of her spirit under those big eyelashes and perfect curls. The movie doesn’t fly because there’s barely any hint of sexual longing between its leads, and because the romance itself takes forever to kick in.
Of the cast it’s only Christoph Waltz who gets under the skin of his character, playing August as an unsympathetic, ruthless man who comes off as a milder cousin of that Nazi brute he won an Oscar for playing in Inglourious Basterds. The scenes with Rosie the elephant are warm and endearing, but that Bollywood-like twist in which the animal saves the day is a tad too much, even in a melodramatic film like this!
Worth a look purely for its immaculate period design, this is a long, tiring film that lumbers along much like poor Rosie herself. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Water for Elephants. It’s glossy and rich, but what’s missing is soul.