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.