Water for Elephants is primarily about the forbidden romance between Jacob and Marlena, and the dark implications of what will happen if they’re found out (August, who seems to lack the heart to fire people, instead has his thugs toss them off the speeding train in the middle of the night). But for the movie lover, the film is nothing less than full immersion into a universe steeped in both gritty reality and fuzzy nostalgia. Director Francis Lawrence does a masterful job of creating the world of the Benzini Brothers Circus. You can feel the muddy, animal-trampled ground beneath your feet, taste the awful food, smell the cages of the barely surviving lions. But Lawrence also lifts his eyes long enough to revel in the romance of the circus — the billowing big top, the gracefully swinging trapeze stars, the circus train by moonlight, chugging its way to the next city.
And in the end, there again is Holbrook, his eyes misty with age and memory. As his old Jacob talks about Marlena, and how he misses her, it’s difficult to separate his character’s words from how we, as fans, know Holbrook the man must still feel following the recent death of the love of his life, his wife Dixie Carter. The greatness of his performance is that Holbrook makes his character’s pain, and his treasure trove of fond memories, uniquely Jacob’s.