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Thursday, April 28, 2011 03:21 pm

Refreshingly romantic Water for Elephants

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Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon in Water for Elephants.

The success of Sara Gruen’s novel, Water for Elephants, speaks to a need people have to believe in something basic and necessary in these dire times. It was no coincidence that during the Great Depression people flocked to the movies to escape their woes and tales of star-crossed lovers defying the odds to ultimately be together. The Depression setting was just the ticket for some viewers. While Gruen’s book may be a well-written piece of prose, its unabashed sense of romance is what keeps readers turning pages and ultimately passing it on to friends.

Director Francis Lawrence wisely embraces this notion in the big-screen adaptation of Elephants and it pays off handsomely. The filmmaker and his cast generate a sense of charm and wonder that contributes to the movie’s success. This Depression-era tale of Jacob (Robert Pattinson), a young veterinarian who inadvertently joins a circus after a tragedy alters his life, sweeps the audience away on a wave of nostalgia and wish fulfillment as it immerses us in the world of this traveling show.

As expected, the traveling menagerie Jacob stumbles into sports a colorful cast of characters, chief among them its owner, August (Christoph Waltz), and his wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the show’s star attraction. On the verge of going down the drain, August takes a chance and buys an elephant, an attraction he’s convinced will turn their fortunes around. He’s right, but it comes at a cost as he puts Jacob in charge of training the beast, assigns Marlena to develop an act around it and unexpected sparks fly between them.

Shot in warm, honey-tinged tones, the film revels in the air of nostalgia it creates visually and narratively. There’s a sense of wonder to this whole affair both in the way it respects the circus world and its performers and in its belief that salvation lies through falling in love. The film wouldn’t work if the cast didn’t buy into its aesthetic and thankfully they do. Pattinson is quite good here as he’s beginning to understand the power of stillness on screen as well as that of his own persona. Witherspoon delivers her usual fine turn, projecting equal measures of strength and vulnerability, while Waltz successfully walks a tightrope as he underscores the reason behind August’s drive but never offers excuses for his sadism. These three prevent these characters from being stereotypes and help Water for Elephants be the best movie love story since The Notebook.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.


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