Making the Grades
Point out something a man can’t have and it is sure to make him want it more than ever. So it is with Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson). His desire happens to be the wife of another man.
After losing his parents (Aleksandra Kaniak, Ilia Volok) in a car accident on the day he was to write his final exam for a veterinarian degree, Jacob leaves town with nothing but a single suitcase in hand. Like many others during the Great Depression, he scrambles aboard a moving train hoping for a brighter future in some distant location. But rather than the usual homeless hobos, he finds himself in the company of circus stars heading for yet another performance in a string of towns. With a little help from an old roustabout (Jim Norton) and some embellishment of the truth, Jacob secures a job as the company’s vet.
However Benzini Bros. Circus isn’t all it appears to be. Lorded over by August (Christoph Waltz), a troubled and cruel ringmaster/owner, the troop try to maintain the illusion of a successful enterprise while avoiding the proprietor’s ire. (August disposes of employees he is disgruntled with or doesn’t want to pay by having them tossed from the speeding train.) Jacob discovers all this after he agrees to care for the animals. That is also when he is warned to stay away fromMarlena (Reese Witherspoon), August’s prized possession and wife.
Of course Marlena becomes the only thing Jacob wants. And so the story unfolds in a predictable fashion, as the romance grows from the brief exchange of glances to a stolen kiss in a shadowed alley and finally a tryst in a hotel room.
What saves this film from being just another tragic love affair with a twist of infidelity are the side stories. Outside of the big top, the life of these traveling entertainers is anything but glamorous. The depiction of their squalid living quarters and grueling working conditions dispels any desire for a life in the circus. Yet even in their desperate circumstances, these individuals survive because of their camaraderie as well as their compassion for the animals.
When August acquires an elephant from another defunct show, he envisions a new act featuring Marlena atop the pachyderm. However his approach to animal husbandry involves nothing more than a big stick with which he mercilessly beats the beast when it doesn’t respond to his commands. The brutal attack cements another rift between the ringmaster and his vet.
Based on a historical novel by Sara Gruen, the story, set in the despairing times of the Dirty Thirties, brings a gritty and sobering tale to the big screen. Yet it is not without content concerns. Along with the sexual dalliances between Jacob and Marlena there are frequent depictions of alcohol and cigarette use. More disturbing may be the portrayals of animal and human cruelty, including the shooting of a horse and the repeated and often bloody beatings of circus employees.
While the production’s actors and setting, along with the lure of the spotlight, might call to some, Water for Elephants will leave most parents looking for another option to quench their family’s entertainment thirst.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Water For Elephants.
How does the movie create a disdain for August? Is it important that viewers dislike him in order to justify the film’s ending? Why do moviemakers often avoid sympathetic villains?
What challenges do these circus performers endure? Why are they motivated to continue with their jobs? Do they have any other alternatives?
Sara Gruen penned Water for Elephants as part of National Novel Writing Month held every year in November.