Starring Robert Pattinson as a Polish veterinary student Jankowski who cannot pursue his career because the death of his parents has left him penniless. The film starts with his older self (Hal Holbroke) telling his own story. Jankowski becomes a drifter and gets onto a circus train and avoids expulsion. The Benzini circus boss August is a sadistic autocrat played by Christoph Waltz and his wife Marlena played by Reese Witherspoon. The leading horse in her act must be put down and August doubts Jankowski’s motives for this. In place of the horse they get an elephant, Rosie, who responds to Jankowski’s gentle Polish commands but excites August to sadistic treatment because the elephant slipped the leash and escaped to the local town. This is 1931, the era of economic depression and prohibition of alcohol, and money is a great obsession. Jankowski and Marlena are mutually attracted, August gets murderously jealous. They escape, she is kidnapped and August is killed by Rosie. Jankowski and Marlena work for the rival Ringling circus.
In some ways a conventional enough mainstream film but quite entertaining. It’s got a good eye for details: the depression era chaos and poverty, Marlena looks like Jean Harlowe, there are police raids on boozy parties. You could see this film as an allegory about the continuing frontier spirit in the USA (the frontier had only closed a few decades before). The travelling circus is a slave camp populated by painted raddled faces of wage slaves close to destitution. There is a fierce territoriality about allotted roles in the division of labour as if to reflect the behaviour of the menagerie animals. The painted cages might have been used for rodeo circuses in the recent past.
Circuses haven’t been prominent in film since the 50’s with De Mille’s Greatest Show on Earth and Burt Lancaster on the flying trapeze. Then, circus films were sanitized, there were of course the usual concerns about money and sex but poverty, disease, and violence were ruled out. Circuses were regarded as showbiz with a hard headed capacity for survival. It’s almost shocking that there are real human problems in these outfits, anyway the bad guys had to go, and the good guys had to prosper. De Mille gives his circus films a quasi-poetic introduction, comparing it to a big ‘beast’. In Water for Elephants the raising of the tents is treated matter of factly, no sentimentality gets in the way. There is no attempt to disguise the hard brutality of the circus for people or animals so there is nothing to get poetic about. The circus is a canvas and wooden jungle on wheels.
The relationship between August, Marlena and Jankowski is a conventional story of jealousy and the evil of power when it can destroy people. Mercifully there are no obligatorily sad clowns or trapeze jocks, the stars of this film are a love triangle and an elephant. The elephant dominates the screen as it sways, looking like some mottled mound of gentleness with a sphinxy expression on its face. When the animals escape their cages it’s gratifying to know that they’re computer images, so we are spared the irony of having real animals performing as (uhm) performing animals in a circus. The mayhem is exotic and shows us how sadism is always more dangerous than animals on the loose.
In the De Mille film there is an emphasis on Christian morality and the circus people are measured against that, in Water for Elephants there is a crude dog-eat-dog world in which these Barnum shysters battled against poverty. Watchable but not convinced about the chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon.