Blu-Ray Review: WATER FOR ELEPHANTS Is a Hollywood Romance To Remember

Can Robert Pattinson shake off the distinct shadow of Edward Cullen for this adaptation of Sarah Gruen's best-selling novel?

Of course Water For Elephants was always going to carry the subtitle of What Robert Pattinson Did Next, and as such the myriad fansites dedicated to the Twilight star (my favourite of which is called SpunkRansom) quickly took it to their hearts. But look beyond the name that is top-billed, alongside Reese Witherspoon and everyone's favourite German Christoph Waltz, and you'll find a film worthy of watching on its own terms. The plot follows Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson), a veterinary student on the cusp of qualifying and setting up his own practice when personal tragedy changes the entire course of his life and he ends up not sitting his final exams. Seeking a new life, necessarily thanks to that tragedy, Jacob jumps aboard a train to discover he has unwittingly climbed into a circus world, where he finds work and new friends, including a giant elephant called Rosie who he works with to become the star of the show. At the same time, Jacob meets and becomes enchanted by the human star of the circus Marlena (Witherspoon), who is married to the troubled and psychopathic but utterly charismatic ring master (Waltz), and it is their forbidden romance that forms the heart of the film. Set during the Great Depression of 1931, the film offers an intriguing portrait of what desperate men in desperate times will do for love. There is something fundamentally old-fashioned about the way the romance plays out on screen, and that vintage feel has a lot to do with the authenticity of the period setting, down to the most minute of details. There is a lot of time in the Extra Features spent detailing the near obsessive level of research and painstaking reconstructions that formed the basis for the production and costume designs, and that diligence really shines in the final film. At a stretch Water for Elephants could well be considered a slightly more restrained Baz Luhrmann flick - the unofficial fourth in his Red Curtain Trilogy (which is perhaps why the Blu-ray packagers chose to go for the cover they did - which incidentally I think was a mistake). It isn't necessarily very similar on the surface, but this is certainly a kindred spirit film: there is the same commitment to the theatricality and the excessive, ornate filmic textures of spectacle. In many ways, Water For Elephants makes me wonder why it is that no-one has ever really made a successful go of making a circus movie, other than the many, mostly awful horror films that channel the inherent exoticness of that environment into something more openly sinister. But done well, as in this film, the circus world seems ripe for portrayal - its spectacle, and the inherent close-knit relationships inspired by such close quarters and that extraordinary sense of community behind the canvas of the big top. There are those who have accused the film of being too sappy, too "vapid" to be anything but good despite itself, but that kind of critique should be reserved for those who invariably meet every romantic film with a snarl and a pre-judging roll of the eyes, as if that genre, on which a good deal of Hollywood was historical built, is somehow immediately dismissable, no matter how it is crafted. But Water For Elephants deserves better than that: it is beautifully designed, and wonderfully executed thanks to a head-turning combination of director Francis Lawrence, production designer extraordinaire Jack Fisk and the hugely talented cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. Together, and along with costume designer Jacqueline West, the team create a lavish canvas on which the acting work can be done. And that acting work is mostly very good, thanks in part to some inspired casting - particularly of Christoph Waltz who I could easily watch play a multi-layered villain a million times, and Reese Witherspoon as his lithe, main attraction wife (the genius here is that Witherspoon is so accomplished in her own stunt work, which adds a further level of authenticity). Okay, so there isn't the most chemistry in the world between Robert Pattinson and Witherspoon, but it is arguably the chemistry between both and Christoph Waltz that matters the most, and Pattinson's defining on-screen relationship is with a giant elephant called Rosie anyway. And Pattinson himself is very good, thanks to that intangible ability to wear bruises so perfectly - both emotional and physical - and his chemistry with Rosie the elephant is as touching as on-screen animal relationships get. It is probably Waltz who walks away with the elephant's share of the plaudits, as once again he balances irresistible charisma with explosive psychopathy and his August is far more complex than the usual cuckolded villain in such genre films. And this performance firmly allayed personal fears that Waltz would be nothing more than a one-act player, cursed to be forever cast as variants of Colonel Hans Landa. RPattz as he is hideously known to fans and media outlets that should know better has done very well to make Water For Elephants in a gap between Twilight projects, and it stands as a timely reminder that if allowed, the young actor could very well make a second go of an acting career after the Stephanie Meyer franchise has disappeared from the multiplexes for the last time. Though presumably, he's going to need to make an "off-brand" choice that once and for all puts a stake through the heart of Edward Cullen.

Quality

20th Century Fox again show why they are considered at the top of their game when it comes to blu-ray reviews, thanks to a commitment to making this sumptuous source film sparkle. The colours of the circus world, which were intentionally over-saturated in order to imply that exotic hyper-reality that the audience experiences pop vibrantly, especially the red of August's coat - as if offering an ominous refrain when he seems to be a redeemable character. Detail is as intricately preserved as the work that went into researching the period details of the film, and textures, particularly in Rosie's thick, dimpled skin looks brilliant throughout. Overall, it looks marvellous. With the soundtrack standing out during the viewing experience - it is a wonderful score - it was important that the audio transfer held up to the high standards set by the visuals, and thankfully that has firmly been the case. The track is immersive and well prioritised, with the sounds of the circus train playing wonderfully in the background and punctuating flourishes like the roar of lions and the shouts of the crowd are clean and sharp. For the most part, Water For Elephants is a talky film, though the back levels and incidental noise levels are almost always busy thanks to the environments in which it is shot, so there is a wonderful sense of that environment even when we can't specifically see it on screen. Dialogue is also well prioritised and clear, and Robert Pattinson's tendency to mumble on occasion (perhaps due to not speaking in his native accent) is never too much of a problem.

Extras

A good selection of additional material, with particular focus on behind the scenes information, which shows off the enormous amount of ground-work and a stoic dedication to authenticity that adds weight to the vintage feel of the film on second viewing. The majority of what is on offer does well to flesh out the viewing experience, especially the historical detail of circuses around the 1931 setting, which I found particularly interesting, but there are a few promo-like inclusions, like the Robert Pattinson Spotlight, which is no doubt included for his own fans (mostly from Twilight no doubt), but overall it's a strong package with an obvious behind-the-scenes bias. Audio Commentary with Director Francis Lawrence & Writer Richard LaGravenese Featurette: Raising The Tent Featurette: The Menagerie Featurette: Secrets of the Big Top Featurette: The Star Attraction Featurette: The Travelling Show - Page to Screen Robert Pattinson Spotlight Working Without a Net: The Visual Effects of Water For Elephants Feature Performer: Reese Witherspoon Theatrical Trailer Water For Elephants is available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD now, though American fans will have to wait til November to pick up a copy.
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