Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Water for Elephants

I did not expect to like Water For Elephants, Francis Lawrence's cinematic version of Sara Gruen's gritty yet whimsical Depression-era circus romance, as much as I did. While I'm sure my very low expectations going in had something to do with my ultimate enthusiasm for the movie I don't think they were the only contributing factor. Water for Elephants is well made, thoughtfully acted and very true to the novel upon which it's based.

Staying true to your source is not always a good thing, though, as some novels lend themselves to adaptation better than others. Cram too many characters and too many meandering plot threads into a two hour distillation of a written story and you're just as likely to get a hot mess as a faithful representation of the source material. Luckily, Water for Elephants is a straightforward narrative that centers on a small group of characters. And Gruen's language is very visually descriptive; it was not hard at all for me to imagine the novel as a movie while I was reading it. I was, however, concerned about the filmmakers prettying up the story for the big screen and removing some of the more unsavory details of circus life that made reading Gruen's book such a pleasure for me. In order to garner a PG-13 rating, I’d imagine, Lawrence and his team do downplay some of the more explicit moments from the book and almost everything in Water for Elephants looks a little prettier than I imagined it in my head, including the hero, who is transformed from a gangly carrot-topped young man into the more conventionally dreamy Robert Pattinson. What I found while I watched, though, was that I didn't really mind because Gruen's story is more than just a meticulously detailed and researched examination of circus life during a specific era in American history; it is, primarily, about the romantic notion, so ingrained in our popular culture, of running away with the Greatest Show on Earth. The story of Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student who runs from an unbearable personal tragedy and, as a result, finds a new life under the big top of the Benzini Brothers Circus, is essentially a fairy tale. Hardships are tempered with magic and wonder and, despite the odds, all ends well.

I can't really fault the movie for playing up the more romantic, whimsical aspects of the story because I feel like they still get it right where it counts - especially in allowing an appropriately dark tone to pervade the interactions between the three principle characters: Jacob, Marlena, the Benzini's star attraction and object of Jacob's infatuation, and August, the circus owner and Marlena's husband. I won't deny that the main reason I was so dubious about this adaptation before I saw it was because of some of the casting choices but I was thrilled when Christoph Waltz was pegged for August, arguably the most complex and interesting character in the book, because I knew from his work in Inglorious Basterds that he could be both charming and terrifying, often in the same moment. That combination is essential for a character like August, a mentally unbalanced man who can draw others in with his charisma one moment only to tear them down with his violent outbursts in the next. I adore Jacob and Marlena. I genuinely do. They are great characters and very easy to root for and to like. I'm fascinated by August, though, because he's not easy to like but he is compelling and Gruen never makes him merely a brute or a one-note baddie; he's more than just an obstacle to the star-crossed love of Jacob and Marlena. If anything, the story feels more like a love triangle. August is genuinely impressed by and fond of Jacob and I believe he loves Marlena. While her marriage to him is often brutal I believe Marlena also loves August. At least the good parts of him, or the way he is in the moments when his illness does not cloud his every thought and he is not acting merely out of blind rage.

So, I never doubted that Waltz could make August as fascinating on the big screen as he'd been on the printed page. And he did not disappoint. Same goes for Hal Holbrook; his small role as present-day Jacob is perfect, like I knew it'd be. I had no faith whatsoever, though, in Pattinson as Jacob and the idea of Reese Witherspoon as Marlena was almost enough to make me physically ill. I really needn't have worried, on either account.

Having only seen Pattinson in the first Twilight movie I found it hard to believe, even when I heard it from reputable sources (like my pal Paige, who has excellent and discerning taste) that he could actually act. I mean, I know he has very little to work with in Twilight but I just couldn't imagine this weirdly pretty, brooding mess of a creature as Jacob. Nerdy, good-natured, brave Jacob. Less the leading man and more the endearing underdog. But somehow, some way, Pattinson convinced me. Yes, his Jacob is more handsome and sure-footed than book-Jacob, but Pattinson brings an appropriate innocence and naivete to the role and a sense of delight at suddenly finding himself in such a strange, bewitching environment. I like that he gets to smile a lot, because he has a wonderful smile, one that he doesn't get to employ enough while he's vamping and sparkling for the tween set in Twilight.

When Reese Witherspoon made her debut at fourteen in The Man in the Moon I was so smitten with her. Her acting was incredibly naturalistic and she imbued her character, lovesick tomboy Dani Trant, with so much pluck and heart. For me everything she’s done since then , with the exception, maybe, of Election, has been a little bit of a let down. I never felt connected to another of her characters as strongly as I did Dani and the more she immersed herself in the land of high-grossing romantic comedies the less genuine and interesting she became to me. The trailers for Water for Elephants played up her Harlow-esque appearance but little else. I was afraid her Marlena would be simpering and insipid but somehow, even in that first moment when she appears on screen, I knew she'd been the right choice for the role. Her Marlena is strong and spunky. A bit flighty at times, just like she was in the book, but resilient and smart. And her chemistry with Waltz is really terrific. The intelligence each actor brings to their role makes the co-dependent relationship between August and Marlena much more interesting and intense than it would have been with lesser actors. They turn something that could have been soapy and overwraught into a taut character study. I found them riveting together.

Of course the heart and soul of the movie, as she was in the book, is Rosie the elephant. As compelling as the interactions between the human characters may be the way each of them relates to Rosie, and the way she regards each of them, is what makes Water for Elephants so special. Tai, the elephant who plays Rosie, has oddly freckled skin and, despite her size, is captivating in a very unassuming way. I think she is especially beautiful and she’s talented, to boot. Elephants are smart, sensitive creatures and maybe acting comes more naturally to them than to some types of animals. I found Tai’s Rosie to be every bit the equal of the other actors in the story. And that's certainly as it should be.