Middle Row, Centre: Charming, But Violent

Landmark Cinemas’ Filmtastic Films series reaches its halfway point October 9 with Water For Elephants, a charming period piece about circus life in Depression-era America.

It stars Reese Witherspoon (Sweet Home Alabama, Walk the Line), Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds) and Robert Pattinson (the Twilight saga series).

The year is 1931. Cornell veterinary medicine student Jacob Jankowski is about to write his final exam before graduation, when tragedy strikes.

His parents are both killed in a car accident, and in short order Jacob (played by Pattinson) learns that his father, also a veterinarian, had fallen behind on his mortgage payments, after a career that had encompassed too much generosity to his cash-strapped clients.

Faced with imminent foreclosure by the bank that will render him homeless as well as an orphan, the penniless 21-year-old decides to walk away from it all.

His education and future plans now seem irrelevant to him, and instead of writing his final exam, he hops a freight train out of town at nightfall, leaving it all behind in his despair.

Speeding through the night, the young stowaway is roughly awakened, to find that he has boarded a circus train, carrying the troupe and the animals of the Benzini Brothers, a third-rate, struggling Big Top on the verge of bankruptcy.

Learning of his veterinary background, the circus owner August Rosenbluth, played by Waltz, presses Jacob into service to work with his animals.

August intends to have his star attraction and wife, the lovely Marlena (played by Witherspoon), whom he has rescued from a life of small-town poverty, trained to ride bareback on his prize elephant Rosie.

He enlists Jacob to work with Rosie, which also means he works closely with Marlena. The two end up spending a lot of time together, while bonding over their mutual love for Rosie.

One thing, of course, leads to another. As we see ringmaster August’s mean streak and hot-headed temper manifest itself in not only ill-treatment of his animals but also abuse of his wife, a love-triangle situation develops.

Water For Elephants is an old-fashioned drama that captures the flamboyance, the glitter and the heartbreak of circus life well.

Based on a best-selling 2006 novel of the same name by American author Sara Gruen, it serves as a good vehicle to expand the acting repertoire of Robert Pattinson, until now confined to his rather one-dimensional vampire role in theTwilight franchise.

Pattinson comes off rather well, as does Witherspoon. But the film’s real show-stopper is Waltz as the thoroughly nasty – to the point of psychotic – August.

His brutality runs so deep as to extend to throwing hapless roustabouts and circus workers off the moving train in the middle of the night, when he is unable to meet his payroll – a practice euphemistically known as “red-lighting”.

Superb cinematography, art direction and set design combine to produce a film that is visually stunning, and is guaranteed to endear audiences of all ages to the heartwarming star-turn of its pachyderm performer Rosie.

Water For Elephants plays at the Qwanlin Cinema Centre Sunday, October 9 at 5 pm and Monday, October 10 at 7 pm. It is rated PG-14 for sexual content and violence.

Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.

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