This romantic drama adapted from Sara Gruen’s novel (one of the early NaNoWriMo successes) is totally unexceptional, despite its ambitions of being some sort of old-Hollywood melodrama. The story is told in flashback by an old man (Hal Holbrook) who wanders into the circus one day, sits down opposite Paul Schneider and proceeds to recount his life story. Young Hal Holbrook is Robert Pattinson, a promising Cornell veterinary student whose hopes are dashed when his parents die in a car crash. This being the Great Depression, he hops aboard a boxcar which just happens to be part of the Benzini Bros’ Circus. He’s taken in, reluctantly at first, by the circus’ manipulative ringmaster (Christoph Waltz) and promptly falls for his wife, played by Reese Witherspoon. They bond over the cruelty the boss doles out to an elephant—prodding it repeatedly with a bull-horn—before eventually working out that it understands instructions in Polish, which Pattinson’s Jacob Jankowski speaks fluently.
So far, so… not bad—but the film doesn’t work as a romance, because its central relationship is completely lacking: there’s not even the tiniest of sparks between Witherspoon and Pattinson; acting-wise, they’re equally atrocious, and the caricature of a character Waltz is stuck with is shameful. Even the big-top finale lacks fizz. Shot by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and designed by Terrence Malick’s right-hand-man Jack Fisk, the film looks beautiful for most of its two hour run-time, but set-design and nice lighting can’t make up for the total lack of chemistry between the leads, and a silly, over-the-top performance from Waltz means that the elephant, with his fatal bull-horn skills, comes out on top—and he doesn’t even have a single line of dialogue.
Water for Elephants is in cinemas now.