I have always been fascinated by the concept of the traveling circus. Not the modern-day sanitized version of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, but the historical and mythical world of the 1920’s circus troupe; a rag-tag menagerie of overworked and abused animals, rugged, surly work hands, and social castoffs coming together to give an eager public doses of faux magic.
This world also captured the imagination of Sara Gruen, author of 2006’s Water for Elephants, which set a tumultuous love triangle against the backdrop of a despairing Depression Era circus. I have never read Gruen’s book, but all accounts have suggested that her eye for detail and emphasis on the darker elements of circus life—mistreatment of the animals, exploitation of the ‘freaks’, and the harsh practice of red-lighting—made it a fascinating and absorbing tale. The same, unfortunately, can’t quite be said of Francis Lawrence’s glossy adaptation, which gets many of the technical details right but fails to generate heat or heart when telling it’s tale of love and jealousy under the big top.
When elderly Jacob Jankowski (a mercurial and welcome Hal Holbrook) shows up at the circus, he’s taken in out of the rain and given a chance to tell his story to the guy in charge, played by the always interesting Paul Schneider. From there we are catapulted back into Jacob’s past and learn of his life as a young man; the death of his parents, his exodus from Cornell, and his eventual joining of the circus, where he would meet the charming but violent August and his sensitive, enticing wife, Marlena. Jacob’s tale is filled with characters on the periphery, like Kinko the dwarf, his Jack Russell Queenie, and Camel, an old, kind circus-hand whose years of drinking a Jamaican ginger extract (a Prohibition alternative to booze) have rendered him lame. When August buys an elephant named Rosie to reinvigorate the circus, he sets off a chain reaction that will pit Jacob against him and force Marlena from his abusive grip and into the young vet’s arms.
To be fair, the big screen version of Water for Elephants is by no means a terrible movie. From its tasteful handling of the central tryst to the favoring of practical sets and effects, Lawrence’s film has an authentic, hand-crafted feel. James Newton Howard’s score is a curiously appropriate one, eschewing the lilting, jovial whirl of carnival music for something more yearning and classical, punctuating scenes of cruelty and compassion with the same intimate scale. Although there’s a curiously detached approach to the events within the circus—it feels more like a highlights reel of the attractions as opposed to a prying eye into the culture—the visual framework is enticing.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Pietro creates the microcosm of the circus train as a living breathing wild animal of its own; all of the clowns, trapeze artists, work hands, and animal trainers serving as a beating heart pumping blood through a diminished body. His camera cranes down the bowels of the box cars and then expands out into the morning sun to capture one of the best tent-raising scenes I’ve seen. The way Pietro’s lens lingers over the rough textures of an exhausted elephant’s hide or spotlight’s Withersoon’s Marlena training her white horses conjures empathy for the animals. The visuals lend emphasis to Richard La Gravenese’s script, which is curiously detached when it comes to the characters.
We then arrive at the principal problem with Water for Elephants; the triangle between Jacob, Marlena and August isn’t given appropriate attention or dimension. It’s also less compelling than the film’s other central relationship between Jacob and the precocious circus elephant Rosie, who only takes commands in Polish and has more chemistry with Pattinson than the miscast Witherspoon. Unfortunately, there’s no percieved intimacy between the two human leads and although Pattinson strives to shrug off the Twilight franchise, he hasn’t quite honed his ability and range as an actor enough to do it. Witherspoon seems unusually restrained and modern, and she keeps Marlena a two-dimensional enigma. There’s no moment where we see what it is that Jacob sees; the enchanting and breath-taking creature that’s worth taking on a madman like August for.
And what a marvelous madman is Waltz, proving here that his maniacal turn in Inglorious Basterds was no fluke. He takes a character who has been neutered by the screenplay and transforms him into a man with several dimensions; he’s charming and passionate, but also brutal, jealous and self-absorbed. In the book August was defined psychologically as a paranoid schizophrenic. Not in the film, where he’s written as a generic black hat. And yet, you can watch those eyes of Waltz’s, note his gestures and mannerisms, listen to the fervor and pitch of his voice. This is a man fractured within himself, so broken, mean and erratic that it feels absolutely appropriate when his circus literally tears itself apart. He and Rosie stand at opposing sides of the film and create a tension that is mismanaged in the final confrontation; it feels forced and hokey, a scriptwriter trying to put a point on something that belongs more implied than imposed.
I liked much of the film, and was impressed by Waltz and the level of detail and care displayed in production. The unfortunate truth though is that all of the surrounding pieces don’t add up to a cohesive whole, and I have to believe that much of the blame lies with Lawrence and Gravenese, who have the talent required to push this story further artistically and emotionally, but don’t. They seem completely absorbed with making it a handsome but toothless adaptation, more concerned with hitting the Hallmark movie crowd then truly exploring the marvelous and rich setting that the novel has provided them with.
In 1932, one year after the events of this novel, Todd Browning would release the horror film Freaks, a dark drama about the seedy and tumultuous passions that thrive within the circus. That film, with its gothic overtones and simple but direct story of outcasts navigating their own tragic love triangle, was a masterpiece that exuded convictions that Water for Elephants never gets around to even thinking about. It too, was primarily an entertainment, designed to tickle the fancies and play on the fears of the marks. Alas,what’s true under the big top is true in the cinema; it comes down to presentation. That’s where Lawrence’s pic falls off the tightrope.