Water For Elephants

by deerinthexenonarclights

I went into this film quite hesitantly – and under some duress – as the kind of picture portrayed in the previews held no appeal for me, and the names attached hardly inspire awe. But A funny thing happened on the way to the circus; it turns out that this film isn’t just an apparently charming, gimmick driven RomCom (Eat,Pray,Love with more Elephants and less Julia, though that does seem a valid trade), nor is it a brooding Mills & Boone romance from the people who brought you Constantine, instead it is a passion-play akin to the style of Sydney Pollack, a style never really seen since. Now that might simply seem like a semantic distinction to a lot of you and from a synoptic standpoint you’d be right, because the difference doesn’t lie in the concept or the casting, it is instead all in the execution; and so these films are hard to handle, you have to pull it off perfectly or watch it fall into mush.

While the film opens weakly with an introductory, modern day bookend (seemingly a must have since the success of The Notebook) which wastes not only our time but the films best two actors in Paul Schnieder and Hal Holbrook (who is forced into playing a centenarian by the films need to contemporise what is essentially a period story). These scenes are pretty horrible and would likely lead a weaker man to crave the scotch the two are bonding over. Then the story proper starts, though unfortunately it’s only Pattinson moping on the screen for a good while, and this too is painful. I’m telling you this because two false starts may very well be enough to send most out on their way, or back to The Pirate Bay for an alternative; but if you hold strong then your endurance will be handsomely repaid.

A unique universe is, for some reason, a pre-requisite of the passion-play – the world has to be as rich and rewarding to explore as the central romance – and Elephant’s Circus certainly ticks this box. The circus in as inherently dramatic a setting as you could ask for in a film – it is a place where reality is corporeally heightened, a place of physical extremes – and yet it still remains an underused, almost unexplored, narrative arena. So all the scenes set in and around the industry are inherently fascinating on their own right; you could remove the main characters and they would work as an unscripted documentary depicting the lives of a traveling troupe. All the scenes set under the big top are sumptuously styled, the sense of showmanship traversing the fourth wall with the ease of some swinging trapeze.Though it’s not usually something that I mention the animal work in this film is particularly amazing, the titular elephant especially. There is though an unfortunate suddenness to the cuts during the performance montages that feels unnecessary, though perhaps that is just a sign that I was enjoying each shot so much, enjoying being on the inside of this world.

Though of course the main motive of the movie is to show what happens on the outside, off the stage and behind the curtain, and this is where I was worried the film would fall apart. While the three way relationship is easily the stories weakest element, thankfully it’s also one of it’s smallest – despite what the ads may suggest. For the majority of the running time the film is simply depicting the human drama of the situation  and this all actually plays quite well, thanks mostly to two great performances from Waltz and Witherspoon (who was surprisingly convincing) and one not as bad as usual from Pattinson. There is a terrific tension present between August and the crew and this is what drives the dramatics, the fact that there is this lustful temptation in the mix just works to exacerbate matters. Unfortunately though the finale does start to fling the focus heavily towards the triangle and almost fumbles the ball before making up for it with a very powerful climax, then drops it entirely with the second bookend – no new act material here.

So though it may not seem like something you want to watch based on the ads or the opening, this occasionally faltering flick is actually quite fascinating; and for those who actually did like the look of the ads, know that none of this stuff stopped the film from eliciting a semi-swoon from me, you just get a good story to go with the fantasy (which is more than can be said for some all of the lead’s other works).