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Review: Water for Elephants

Directed By: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Robert Pattinson

Old fashioned and sentimental, Water for Elephants still has much to offer those in search of spectacle and matinee romance, not least for its readable costumes by Jacqueline West.

Set during America’s Great Depression, the story gathers pace with an empathetic opening and initially captivating performance by Robert Pattinson as Jacob Jankowski, an as yet unqualified vet who, following a family tragedy joins up with a travelling circus. Unfortunately after this exciting set up, Water for Elephants settles into the predictable search for identity via discovering oneself; Jacob falls in love with circus performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a glamorous Jean Harlow type who happens to be the wife of tyrannical circus owner August (Christoph Waltz). This is rarely a convincing dalliance however as Pattinson cannot shake Jacob’s ‘little boy lost’ image. Never mind the circus animals; it is Marlena who looks as though she could eat him for breakfast.

Thankfully their courtship is made more interesting by the film’s interpretable costume design. Marlena wears three sumptuous silk and satin, halterneck and backless evening gowns that that use colour to denote the beginning, middle and end of her romantic journey with Jacob. Firstly white to suggest naive flirtation, then red as passion heightens and they enter more dangerous physical territory, and finally black, signifying foreboding; their darkest hour before the light. The narrative is undemanding so this element adds a welcome layer of subtext.

Water for Elephants is difficult to dislike. It is a visual delight, sympathetic to period (set design, clothes, props) and Depression era circus life as a whole. The wretchedness is subdued and idealised, of course; the story is sold as such from its first scene. Even the oppressive presence of August, his sadistic cruelty to humans and animals, is not without explanation. Thanks to a charismatic performance by Waltz, one that channels his erratic menace from Inglourious Basterds (2009), August is more than a monster; he is a sick man weighed down by a responsibility he is just not equipped to handle.

Apart from the mawkish and wholly unnecessary epilogue, there are worse ways to spend a lazy afternoon. Fans of Pattinson can rejoice as the entire tale arcs around his character, plus he can wear loose, high waisted trousers and broad shouldered thirties jackets with surprising poise considering his slender frame in the Twilight series. Water for Elephants is certainly enough; you just wish it were more.

Water for Elephants was released in the UK on 4th May.

© 2011 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.

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