Director: Francis Lawrence | 121 minutes | drama | Actors: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, James Frain, Paul Schneider, Hal Holbrook, Dan Lauria, Tim Guinee, Ken Foree, Mark Povinelli, Sam Anderson, Scott MacDonald, Richard Brake, Tatum Etheridge, Jim Norton, Ashley Palmer, Calvin Dean, Brad Greenquist, Donna W. Scott, Adrienne Rusk, Abbie Dunn, Tracy Phillips, EE Bell, Jim Jansen, Emerson Brooks
Better late than never. That certainly applies to Christoph Waltz. For decades he had been a valued and sought-after actor not only in his native Austria, but also in Germany. But just like for many others, he also had the dream of one day breaking through to the large, international audience. So in Hollywood. Thirty years of hard work in Europe did not bring him the desired success, but a meeting with Quentin Tarantino and a starring role in his successful war film “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) finally gave the now 52-year-old Waltz his long-awaited, definitive breakthrough. His manic portrayal of Nazi colonel Hans Landa, which instilled a lot of fear with his deceptive charm, even won him the Oscar for best supporting actor. Waltz’s food seems to have been bought, although the films he has chosen since “Inglourious Basterds” are not all equally strong. In the romantic drama “Water for Elephants” (2011), the little Austrian actually plays a variant of Hans Landa. As circus director August Rosenbluth, he is just as unpredictable and elusive.
The lead role in this film directed by the Austrian-born Francis Lawrence (“I am Legend”, 2007) is Robert Pattinson, who is trying hard to shake off his image as a teen idol. He is Jacob Jankowski, who in 1931 was forced to drop out of his veterinary studies just before the exams when both his parents died in a car accident. Without money and without family, he decides to travel around and jumps on the first train he meets. It turns out to be the circus train of the Benzini Brothers, a collective run with an iron hand by August (Christoph Waltz). He is not afraid of throwing “redundant” staff from the moving train and imposing his will on people and animals with a heavy hand. Because Jacob shows that he knows veterinary medicine, he can stay. His main task will be to tame the circus’s newest star attraction, the elephant Rosie. He works with the beautiful Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), not only one of the most profitable stars of the circus, but also August’s wife. Soon the sparks jump back and forth …
“Water for Elephants” looks like it could be put through a ring. A lot of care and attention (and money) has clearly been put into the sets, the sets and the costumes in order to reconstruct the characteristic atmosphere of a circus at the time of Prohibition. Perhaps even more important is the lively and colorful camerawork by Rodrigo Prieto (who also regularly collaborates with Alejandro González Iñárritu) and the matching, atmospheric music by James Newton Howard. As a sketch of the atmosphere the film is more than successful, but less so as a romantic drama. That has everything to do with the casting of Robert Pattinson in the lead role. He makes a fairly phlegmatic, almost apathetic impression. Where you should be able to shake off the wonder at the magical surroundings of the circus, the teen idol hardly radiates anything. He is certainly not unpleasant, but we don’t really sympathize with him either. The chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon is logically hard to find. As a result, the romantically intended scenes seem to last an eternity. We’d much rather see Waltz, because when he’s in the picture, at least something happens. Although he seems to be playing “safe” and comes up with a character that is very reminiscent of Hans Landa, but he does this so convincingly that he runs off with every scene. The sympathetic role of good old Hal Holbrook as the older Jacob also strikes the right note. The star of the film, however, is the elephant Rosie, who plays a crucial role in the story and manages to steal the show more than once.
Romance in a circus tent, it sounds a bit old-fashioned. “Water for Elephants” certainly exudes nostalgia, thanks to the beautiful sets, sets, music and photography. It is unfortunate that the romantic drama is not portrayed at all because the wrong stars were cast. Pattinson’s apathy, combined with Witherspoon’s blandness – it wasn’t a good idea. Fortunately, Waltz, Holbrook and elephant Rosie make up for a lot, so the score is still positive. The romantics among film buffs will certainly be able to indulge in the beautiful, nostalgic atmosphere sketch of a bygone era. Then take the mediocre central storyline for granted.