Posted by: greercn | April 29, 2011

Water For Elephants

Films set during recent historical periods tend to lose too much of the detail of the time they are set in. Yet this tale, set within a circus and on a train carrying that circus from town to town in the 1930s is successful in establishing and preserving a great sense of the Depression while offering a sobering echo of our own austere times.

It gets the detail right, in that they match the look of familiar newsreels.

Robert Pattinson is very believable as Jacob, the hero who escapes personal tragedy by joining the circus. With this and “Remember Me”, he proves he has acting skills beyond his “Twilight” role.

Reese Witherspoon brings depth and quality to the circus owner’s wife, Marlena. It’s very rare that I want to own the clothes worn by a character in a movie, yet there are at least five outfits Reese wears that I truly wish to have.

But the big star here is “Inglourious Basterds” (Tarantino’s spelling and not mine) Christoph Waltz, who is outstanding as the cruel circus owner. The depth of violence and bad temper is controlled with great delicacy. You recoil.

Okay, you really wouldn’t want to meet this guy in real life. Yet the on screen monster is extraordinary. His August manages the transition to the charismatic  charm required for his circus MC scenes, without skipping a beat. It’s a forceful and magical performance.

All the supporting cast are very good and the whole ensemble creates a real sense of the hard lives lived by circus people, behind the public scenes of the big top. 

Hal Holbrook is one of my all-time favourite actors and he is superb as the older Jacob, looking back on the events in the film.

The actual circus acts and scenes remind me of how the circus was in my childhood memories, a little after the Depression but before Cirque du Soleil upped the ante.

It’s based on a Sara Gruen novel I haven’t read so I can’t reassure readers that there is any similarity at all. Gruen is credited as a co-writer.

I went to a free preview screening promoted by ShowFilmFirst which was available at many cinemas, but I saw it at the Odeon in Greenwich. It’s a big and comfy multi-screen cinema which includes an IMAX. I haven’t been there before but the seats and screens are good.

Curiously, after watching a romantic drama about the appearance of glamour and the harsh lives hidden behind the scenes, I noted that everything at this Odeon gleamed, except that the toilets appeared to have had a herd of elephants through them and were out of toilet paper and not very clean. Really, my standards on these things are very minimal, so I can only conclude that the cinema was short-staffed.

“Water For Elephants” is a great romantic drama with sufficient period detail to add some depth and lots of outstanding performances. If you love the circus and like the actors here, do go see it when it comes out next week.



  1. My book club read Water For Elephants at least a year ago, and I just viewed the film this afternoon here in Montreal. The film sticks pretty close to the book, which of course goes into interesting, deeper detail about circus and Depression life. The film shows what it can in two hours, while the book has a greater capacity for character development, especially important secondary players like Camel and Walter. Rosie the elephant was a dear! I enjoyed the film and happily recommend it.

    • I’m glad you wrote that because I hadn’t read the book. I liked the film’s take on Camel, Walter, Blackie and the rather affecting guy with the little dog. Hal Holbrook is an inspired choice as the older Jacob. I have such respect for him, ever since “The Bold Ones” episode “The Whole World is Watching” in 1969 which was the first mainstream TV show to deal with the student occupations and uprisings. With so many action movies around, it’s great to see a romantic drama with something interesting to say about a lost world.

  2. Although it is only April, I predict that Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen will be one of the best books I read this year. Gruen has proven to be an amazing storyteller.

    Water for Elephants is told in the first person but from two different perspectives–Jacob Jankowski at 23 years of age and again, at 93 years old. Gruen seamlessly weaves the chapters between past and present. Jacob at 23 is finishing up his last semester at Cornell Veterinary School when a family tragedy causes him to flee. He finds himself on a train for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth in 1931. Needing a vet, the circus hires young Jacob to tend to their menagerie. Jacob at 93 resides in a nursing home where he laments the curses of old age, the passing of his wife, and the waning affection of his family. The arrival of a visiting circus triggers a flashback to his youthful circus experiences.

    1931 is a hard time for almost all Americans, and the circus workers are as hard hit as any. Most are one step away from being homeless and jobless. Conditions on the circus train are harsh for most. Many workers go weeks without being paid, and they tend to disappear during the night when times are tough (management has them thrown off the train). The menagerie is often times treated better than the workers. But the circus does provide three meals a day and a place to sleep–even it if might mean a horse blanket on a train bed floor. Jacob discovers very quickly that he’s just about the only advocate the animals have and he must battle a ruthless owner (Uncle Al) and a crazy animal trainer (August).

    Any circus has more than their fair share of interesting characters, and Gruen’s circus is no exception. In addition to Uncle Al and August, there is Walter (the midget clown), Marlena (an equestrian with whom Jacob falls in love), and Grady and Camel (workers). One of the most sympathetic characters in Water for Elephants is Rosie, the elephant–who shares more “human” characteristics and feelings than some of the circus bosses. The tender-hearted Jacob quickly grows to manhood as he is forced to protect both animals and coworkers from abuse and worse.

    Water for Elephants is a delightful, moving book, and the ending was a very pleasant surprise. Also, if you want a special treat, listen to it on audiobook. The two readers, David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones, did a wonderful job of bringing both Jacobs (young and old) to life.

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