Thursday, 19 May 2011

Film #45 Water for Elephants

So, we're somewhere in the USA, 1931. Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is training to become a vet at Cornell when he finds out that (a) his parents have been killed, and (b) they were massively in debt so the bank have taken the house and he can no longer afford tuition. This being the Great Depression (and in case you weren't paying attention, the fact is noted by one minor character or another roughly every five minutes), the natural option for a jobless, homeless young man is to hop a train, hobo-style. Pattinson, luckily for us, hops a very particular train - a circus train, in fact. He's taken on as a roustabout dogsbody, but before long his veterinary skills are noted by dictatorial circus owner August (Christoph Waltz) and his wife, Lipizzaner-esque horse performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). The film progresses, and Jacob is put in charge of the circus's new star attraction, a scene-stealing elephant called Rosie. However, affection also grows between Jacob and Marlena, beginning a love triangle that could bring down etc. etc. you can guess the rest.

Now here's a switcheroo thought experiment for you: keep pretty much the entire plot, but swap Claude Rains for Waltz, Vivien Leigh for Witherspoon and a young Henry Fonda for Pattinson. Then remove 'Francis Lawrence' from the directors credit and replace it with 'George Cukor' and presto change-o: you've got yourself a fair-to-middling Hollywood Golden Age women's picture.

And a great deal of this film is old-fashioned beyond the plot: Robert Pattinson is a matinee idol of the old school, the film is lovingly shot by Rodrigo Prieto on good old 35mm with deliciously rich colouration, Waltz recalls a classic Hollywood kind of villain and Reese Witherspoon looks exactly like the kind of star that Jack Woltz would have groomed through the old studio system.

It has to be said, though, that for all its classiness it lacks depth, and for all that it's very decently put together I just didn't enjoy it. I'm not really the target audience to be fair (and the theatre was filled with an odd mix of pensioners and Twilight-age teenage girls) but nonetheless I doubt this will be in any end-of-year polls come December-time.

Then there are also the troubling (and ironic) allegations of animal cruelty - though it should be noted that the American Humane Association gave the film their 'no animals were harmed' seal of approval. For what it's worth, I really have a hard time watching animal cruelty even when it's entirely special effect/CGI, and in any case it's kind of a cheap shot in terms of storytelling (George Lucas once noted that emotionally engaging an audience was easy - juts choke a kitten on camera) so having Christoph Waltz prove his devilishness by thwacking an elephant into a bloody mess with a hooked iron rod is an easy way out, from a storytelling perspective.

An unremarkable: