Monday 18 December 2017

Movies: Water for Elephants **

(12A, general release)

Paul Whitington

High, wide and blandly handsome, Water for Elephants initially shapes up like one of those schmaltzy but enjoyable romantic epics that Hollywood used to specialise in.

Based on a bestseller by Sara Gruen, the film is set in the glory days of the American circus during the Great Depression, and summons the ghosts of big-budget movies such as Cecil B DeMille's cheesy but spectacular Greatest Show on Earth. But director Francis Lawrence is so intent on squeezing in every element of the book's tortuous plot that he drains the tale of its essential melodrama, and he's not helped by his miscast and mismatched leads.

In a brief prologue, a bewildered old man who turns up late for a modern-day circus is taken into the ticket office to compose himself. This is Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook), who tells a young ticket-taker the story of his youthful adventures with the legendary Benzini Brothers Circus back in the 30s. The child of Polish immigrants, Jacob grew up in a loving home and is about to sit his veterinary finals when his parents are killed in a car accident. Devastated, the young Jacob (Robert Pattinson) leaves his hometown and hops on board a passing train.

It just so happens to be the train the Benzini Circus uses to transport its show around Depression-era America. Jacob is enchanted, and when he proves useful by helping a sick horse, the show's owner, August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), hires him as the circus vet. Jacob takes to the travelling life like a duck to water, but there's a dark side to it all. August is a cruel man with a murderous temper, and things get complicated when Jacob starts to fall in love with August's wife Martina (Reese Witherspoon), the show's star performer.

August is always looking for the next big act that will make his fortune, and he thinks he's found it when he acquires an elephant called Rosie. When Jacob discovers the beast responds to Polish they develop a special bond, and Rosie and Martina become the show's star act. But the storm clouds are gathering, and Rosie will be at the centre of a crucial confrontation.

All style and no substance, Water for Elephants looks the part but completely fluffs its central romance.

Witherspoon seems lost and disinterested, and who can blame her when faced with the winsome but wooden Pattinson? Trapped in a shell of handsomeness, he responds to tragedy and joy with the same almost imperceptible downward quiver of the lip. As a consequence, Jacob and Martina's love affair is a passionless snooze, Waltz's ringmaster is a ludicrous stage villain and the film concludes in unseemly chaos.

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