Dust off the gramophone and start being suspicious of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, as you are about to be transported back to 1931 and into a story of dubious romantic but impeccable period credentials. What Water for Elephants lacks in romance it more than makes up for with a real sense of time and place and a towering central performance by everyone’s favourite Tarantino-inflected, mass-murdering Nazi – Christoph Waltz.
What we have is essentially a coming of age story, in which recently orphaned Jacob Jankowski is taken under the wing of enigmatic circus owner August. He soon becomes the darling of their travelling show and, sure enough, falls for August’s star attraction and wife, Marlena. Sure enough, our mysterious ringleader quickly turns out to be as mad as a box of vexed frogs, leading their romance to play out amidst a backdrop of growing threat and paranoia. It’s all very sweeping and epic, but it’s the central role of August that butters the bread of the premise and it’s one that almost elevates it above the mediocrity that the film all too often slips into.
Need someone to play a bipolar charmer with a penchant for success and strangulation? Well, post-Inglourious Basterds, Waltz is your man. That he seems unable to play anything other than complex and utterly compelling madmen to any great effect is a little worrying, but for now his ham-free scenery chewing is something to behold. If Waltz is the driving force behind proceedings then Robert Pattinson as Jacob is just a passenger of dubious attraction. A whimpering head shake here and a longing stare there is all he is willing, or possibly able, to give.
His and Reese Witherspoon’s chemistry vortex threatens to suck the romance from all around them. She herself may look glamorous sitting atop a horse/elephant/chair but that’s all Marlena really seems to do. Anyway, who needs chemistry when you’ve got great production design, solid direction and enough period culture to seduce even the most philistinistic amongst us? Well I for one do, but Water for Elephants is far from being a bad film.
Although it may occasionally feel like something you’d watch round your grandparent’s house right before the Antiques Roadshow started and the fun ended, there is nonetheless a certain quaint simplicity about Francis Lawrence’s latest offering. As long as you’re careful about your expectations and are wary of slipping up on the lashings of soppiness, you may just have yourself a very satisfying trip to the talkies, even if you do walk out with an inexplicable urge to watch Bargain Hunt.