Gorgeous period detail but flat acting in Water for Elephants | Arts
INDY Week's arts blog

Archives | RSS | Follow on

Friday, April 22, 2011

Gorgeous period detail but flat acting in Water for Elephants

Posted by on Fri, Apr 22, 2011 at 2:43 PM

Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon share a dance.
  • Photo by David James/ Twentieth Century Fox
  • Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon share a dance.
Sara Gruen’s million-selling novel—a blockbuster publication for Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill—gets the movie treatment courtesy of director Francis Lawrence. Last night, we caught the long-awaited movie version in a special invited-guest premiere at the Lumina Theatre in Chapel Hill.

Although the results are mixed, the achievements are very real.

For those not among the four million purchasers of Gruen’s novel, the story is set in the Great Depression, in a world of traveling big-top circuses, with their exotic animals and humans along with the carnies, tinkers and suckers. What works best in this film, adapted for the screen by Richard LaGravenese, is the magnificent attention to detail. The single best shot in the film is of the carnies raising the canvas big top in yet another dreary town; in a movie culture where we expect this kind of thing to be faked through digital effects and quick cutting, it’s nice to linger over the timbers and canvas and rope.

The success of the film’s mise en scene is due to Jack Fisk, who is one of the best production designers in the business—his credits include There Will Be Blood, The New World, Mulholland Dr. and Days of Heaven. There’s no rosy hue to the world of Water for Elephants, but it’s rarely less than gorgeous under the lens work of Rodrigo Prieto (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Brokeback Mountain).

Considerably less compelling are the two actors at the center, Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. Pattinson, who plays Jacob, a young veterinary student forced to take a job with a traveling circus, may be the hunk of the moment, but his performance is inert and witless. He can’t stop looking like the smug jock in a teen comedy. Witherspoon, who plays Marlena, the star attraction of the circus who performs first with horses, then with an elephant, stopped being an interesting actress long ago, but she gets no help from a story that renders her the passive object of a rivalry between Jacob and her husband August, who owns the circus with a greedy heart and a violent temper.

Playing Marlena's husband opposite two flat, dull foils, Christoph Waltz ends up not so much stealing scenes as simply swallowing them. Waltz is best known for his Oscar-winning performance as a seductive, ironic monster in Inglourious Basterds, and here he seems to be trying to repeat the trick. His performance as an alcoholic, jealous and violent man is certainly terrifying, but his mixture of purrs and sneers and sobs is a baffling one that seems belong less to Depression-era America and more to a film about a psychopathic Latin American dictator (he even has troublesome employees tossed to their deaths from moving trains).

Paul Schneider and Hal Holbrook also appear in the film’s present-day framing narrative; it’s an unnecessary device, but it’s nice to see Holbrook—who plays Jacob as an old man. One wishes that the voiceover narration—also unnecessary—used throughout the film had been spoken by him rather than Pattinson.

The most moving performance in the film, however, is by a trained elephant named Tai, who plays Rosie, the four-ton pachyderm who enters the story midway through and remains its central object of fascination. Gruen’s story doesn’t skimp on the cruelty of 1930s circuses, and a scene in which Rosie is subjected to August’s violent temper is absolutely heartrending.

Although one wishes for a more subtly written and performed love triangle, the film isn't dull, and its sense of period detail is reason enough to see it—and enough to place it in the company of other authentic circus films, such as Freaks. And, in spite of its weaknesses, Water for Elephants carries the signal virtue of hearkening to a tradition of sweeping period melodrama, the kind of movie one wishes were made more often.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Pin It


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Arts

Twitter Activity


Thanks for the nice article and acknowledgement, Byron. I would like to put a gentle dedication out to my father, …

by RKlem on Common Ground Theatre Is Gone, But Some of Its Resources and Its Role Live on in Walltown Children's Theatre (Arts)

Most Recent Comments

Thanks for the nice article and acknowledgement, Byron. I would like to put a gentle dedication out to my father, …

by RKlem on Common Ground Theatre Is Gone, But Some of Its Resources and Its Role Live on in Walltown Children's Theatre (Arts)

I thought it was a great movie. The acting was believable, special effects were good, story was balanced and the …

by Cat Jackson on Movie Review: In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie Gets Medieval on Our Collective Asses (Arts)

Revitalization = Gentrification and a mentality that says the area needs to be made great again. I don't get how …

by John Curtis Smith on Op-Ed: Revitalization Without Gentrification: The Scrap Exchange in Durham’s Lakewood Neighborhood (Arts)

I haven't seen the movie, so I won't comment on the reading of the documentary. Just want to say that …

by Max Brzezinski on Full Frame: Dina Is Earning Acclaim for Its Portrait of Love and Autism. But Is It Illuminating or Exploitative? (Arts)

© 2017 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation