Shaking off such a character as famous as Edward Cullen is going to be a tall order for Robert Pattinson. After gaining mostly bit-parts in films before the release of Twilight in 2008, Pattinson has so far managed to star in two features in amongst the release of the saga’s instalments. The first, Remember Me, was an ironically forgettable affair – a moody, coming-of-age drama which had a clunky plot that was tagged onto the beginning of a dramatic, ready-made finale. By contrast, Water for Elephants has a much brighter, nostalgic theme with a central protagonist far removed from the Pattinson we’re used to seeing.
The plot follows a Polish American named Jacob (Pattinson), who is attending Cornell University with the intention of graduating as a qualified vet. He receives news that his parents have been killed, leaving him with massive debts that can only be repaid by losing the family home. Deciding that he can no longer stay at college Jacob jumps onto a passing night train, unaware of its cargo or destination. He discovers it is a travelling circus, belonging to the Benzini Brothers – Jacob is initially dismissed by the owner August (Waltz), but is saved from being ejected after telling him that he has experience in veterinary science.
Jacob becomes enamoured by August’s wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who looks after the horses that feature in her circus act. After noticing that one of them is suffering and needs to be put down, he finds himself at loggerheads with August about the most humane way to deal with the situation – especially since his boss is losing money and needs to keep his prize assets to get people in. Meanwhile, as Jacob’s feelings for Marlena get stronger, an elephant called Rosie is brought into the circus but it is not long before August’s poor treatment of the animal and his obvious attraction to his boss’ wife cause tensions to spill over.
Water for Elephants is a non-offensive film which is low on convincing drama, conflict and excitement. Although the time period may suggest a certain nostalgia for the Great Depression era, there is not a great deal to go on except the costumes, cinematography (which is perhaps the main highlight) and the animals – most of which are created by CGI. All the circus clichés are here – the attractive lady, the midget and the token giant – as we would expect. There’s a sense that director Francis Lawrence is aiming for a Shawshank-style feel, but to his credit he does well to transport us back in time.
The main problem here are the two leads, Pattinson and Witherspoon. Seldom can there be such a leading couple with practically zero on-screen chemistry. Jacob and Marlena are supposed to be suffering from unrequited passion, yet you’ll be hard pressed to find anything more than a damp squib of a relationship (if you can call it that). Christoph Waltz’s character August is a little too hammy to be taken seriously and is played as a lightweight caricature rather than a proficient adversary for Jacob as the plot requires. The storyline itself glides along a little too smoothly, as if we are not supposed to care about these characters, but instead sit back and enjoy the scenery which is all well and good, but it’s not enough to grab our attention.
Pattinson has taken a very small step away from the brooding Edward, but he still has a long way to go before he can show us he is a versatile actor who can turn his hand to any role across different genres.