“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” - Immanuel Kant
Yesterday we watched a good film, Francis Lawrence’s 2011 “Water for Elephants” , starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz. This movie is based on the novel of the same name by Sara Gruen, an as with all movies that are based on books, much has been omitted, simplified or otherwise slightly tweaked. Ultimately one has to leave the book well alone, watch the movie and ask oneself does this work as a film? Was the screenplay good? Was the direction, the cinematography good? Was the casting appropriate, did the cast act well? Was the film of high quality, with good productions values, was it enjoyable to watch and engaging? Obviously if one has read a great book and enjoyed it, watching a film which is not exactly like the book or not up to one’s high expectations, will cause great disappointment…
Watching the film, one of us had read the novel and one had not. We both greatly enjoyed the film, and it was fortunate that we both watched the movie as a movie, without talking about the book before or during it. The discussion occurred afterwards, regarding differences between book and film. Yes, there are differences but a book, is a book, is a book, and a film, is a film, is a film. And the movie was a good one. Like a good, old fashioned, Hollywood movie, which they don’t often make nowadays.
In a nutshell, the plot has as follows: In the midst of the Great Depression and Prohibition in the USA, Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson), the son of Polish immigrants is left penniless and homeless after his parents die in a car accident. Although he is a veterinary student at Cornell University and only needs little time to become qualified, he leaves all and joins a circus as their vet. He befriends some fellow workers and fits in well enough, but he has to work under an unstable and violent boss, August (Waltz). August is unscrupulous, sadistic and violent making everyone be cautious around him, including his beautiful and quiet wife Marlena (Witherspoon), of whom August is very possessive and jealous. Jacob finds himself attracted to her, especially given her gentleness with the circus animals, which August mistreats. Rosie, an elephant that is acquired to star in a new act proves to be catalytic for all sorts of crises that will test each of the main characters.
Warning: Do not watch this film if you feel strongly about cruelty against animals. I had to grit my teeth and felt quite miserable when such scenes were shown. The makers of the movie certify that no animals were really hurt making the movie, but it was hard to remember that when watching the very realistic scenes of animal cruelty. They are graphic scenes and reflect the times and circumstances that film relates to, thus forming an integral part of the plot. But they really are heart-wrenching scenes that made very upset and angry.
The leads were excellent, especially Reese Witherspoon as the fragile Marlena and Christoph Waltz as the sadistic August. Pattnson shows great promise, and I am sure that he will make a fine actor as he matures. The supporting cast were very good and the illusion of the Circus worked well, in a very convincing set with the appropriate acts, costumes and props. The period atmosphere of the film was great and was transferred well to screen. With an estimated budget of $38 million, one can tell that things were not done on the cheap. The critics gave the film a fairly harsh criticism, but the public liked it well enough with opening weekend takings being $16,842,353 (24 April 2011; 2817 Screens) and grossing $58,700,247 (7 August 2011, USA).
The direction, cinematography, music and production are excellent and as I said earlier reminded me of the golden age of Hollywood. The dialogue was ingenuous, earnest, believable and once again in keeping with the times and circumstances depicted in the movie. It is a beautiful looking film with many poignant moments, some humour and quite a lot of drama. I am determined now to read the novel and make up my own mind as to how well it was transferred to screen. However, as a movie it worked for us and we enjoyed it thoroughly. We can recommend it most highly.