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).
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.