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Movie Review: Water for Elephants

Director Francis Lawrence captures the beauty and the ferocity of the three-ring circus in his latest film

Against all odds, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) find lifelong love in Water for Elephants

Against all odds, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) find lifelong love in 'Water for Elephants'. — Courtesy David James/20th Century Fox

Directed by Francis Lawrence
Rated PG-13
Runtime: 122 mins.

En español  |  Exquisitely crafted on every level, dreamlike in its evocation of an era gone by, Water for Elephants floats in the memory like a big top on the horizon, or the gauzy smoke of a circus train disappearing into the sunset.

And presiding over the affair, providing a kind of opening dedication and closing benediction, is the glorious Hal Holbrook, rendering a performance that is — for all its brevity — mournful, nostalgic and triumphant.

We meet Holbrook as a 90-something retired veterinarian named Jacob, wandering among the tractor-trailers of a modern-day traveling circus (Circus Vargas, as it turns out — one of America’s few remaining big-top tent circuses). The circus manager ushers him into his office/trailer, and as they wait for someone from the nearby retirement home to come collect him, Jacob begins to tell his story, a tale that begins and ends in 1931, the year he left Cornell University to join a traveling circus.

Here’s where we pick up the story in earnest, with Twilight dreamboat Robert Pattinson taking up the role of young Jacob. He’s immediately likeable, and that surprised me. I’ve managed to avoid seeing any of the Twilight films, but my impression of Pattinson (he plays a vampire, right?) was always that of a droopy-eyed pretty boy. Here, he’s immediately engaging and fun company — but I wonder how his fans will cope with the fact that in this film he has the same first name as his Twilight arch-rival, a teenage werewolf. Hmm…

In his first days with the circus, and despite his Ivy League background, Jacob finds acceptance and camaraderie among the roustabouts, carny barkers and performers of the Benzini Brothers Circus. He is almost immediately smitten with the gloriously blonde, irresistibly charming bareback horse rider Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who is not only the star of the circus, but also the wife of the alternately charming and freaky psychopathic circus owner, August (Christoph Waltz). August takes an immediate shine to Jacob — especially when he learns the young man was studying veterinary medicine at Cornell. Having an Ivy Leaguer on the train appeals to August’s pathological hunger for acceptability (an odd compulsion for a guy who has chosen to make his living in the murkiest backwaters of America’s cultural landscape).

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