The circus has come to town in this tear-jerking adaptation of Sara Gruen‘s bestseller.

Robert Pattinson in Water for ElephantsAmidst a backdrop of the Great Depression, veterinary student Jacob Jankowski (Twilight’s Robert Pattinson) is preparing to sit his final exam and launch into the rest of his life when tragedy strikes; his parents are killed in a car accident, leaving him orphaned and destitute. But Jacob’s luck is set to change when he finds work with the famed Benzini Brothers’ circus – and meets his boss’ beautiful wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

Reportedly made for US $38 million, this film looks just about as spectacular as the circus within it. It’s easy to see where the money went when every frame of every shot is so beautifully rendered; with a CV full of lavish music videos to his name, director Francis Lawrence seems right at home with establishing a world within a world. There’s an emphasis on colour and romance that permeates the whole production, right through to the makeup and wardrobe work on the extras. So what better leading couple than Pattinson and Witherspoon, who even at their worst moments, always seem to look immaculate.

Reese Witherspoon & Christoph Waltz in Water for ElephantsWitherspoon’s unique mix of fragility with stubborn resolve is a perfect fit for the role of fellow orphan Marlena, who seems to oscillate between beguiling seduction and lost-girl innocence. Pattinson’s measured performance as sensitive soul Jacob is surprisingly affecting. Both are immensely capable and look wonderful together, but neither seems to have the smouldering intensity to elevate their affair to the calibre of, say, The Notebook or even Twilight. Fortunately though, there’s Inglourious Basterds‘ superstar Christoph Waltz, whose chilling portrayal of Marlena’s husband August is terrifying and yet manages to retain glimmers of humanity when the film needs them most.

But it is clever writing that takes the cake here. Gruen’s novel has been perfectly realised for the screen by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, who manages to tell the story without torturing his audience with clunky flashbacks and overt amounts of narration. He also knows how to tug at your heartstrings, and has most likely done it many times before: LaGranevese also wrote the screenplays for A Little PrincessThe Bridges of Madison County and P.S. I Love You, just to name a few.

All things considered, it’s a sumptuous feast for the senses that isn’t afraid to remind us, as the tagline states, that ‘life is the most spectacular show on earth.’

First posted on Movie Nation: May 23rd, 2011

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