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“Water for Elephants” is partly a sawdust love story, partly a survival story. It opens with an old man’s reminiscence, as Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) tells a young circus hand about his own Depression-era adventures under the big top.

He didn’t join the show out of any romantic impulses about carnival life. The well-planned veterinary career he expected was torpedoed by a family tragedy.

And the first train he could hop just happened to be carrying roustabouts, a menagerie, a gorgeous trick rider, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and her possessive husband, the circus’s owner and ringmaster, August (Christoph Waltz). That’s where the romance enters. And the survival drama, too.

Twentysomething Jacob (Robert Pattinson, looking much nicer tanned and smiling than he does in the “Twilight” series) gets a crash course in circus etiquette. The workers hate the performers, the train doesn’t slow down when deadbeats get tossed off, the coochie dancers like to tease virginal lads and the animals produce staggering quantities of manure. As to the age-old commandment Keep Your Hands off the Boss’ Wife, he is respectful. At least initially.

A handsome, expensive-looking adaptation of Sara Gruen’s 2006 bestseller, “Water for Elephants” balances the colorful glitz of a three-ring spectacle with the atmospheric realism that a rich drama demands.

Witherspoon, doing her best work since her Oscar-winning “Walk the Line,” is a decent, dutiful wife struggling with her feelings for Pattinson’s kind, hunky animal-lover. Waltz gives his role surprising depth.

He’s a commanding personality, shading into cruelty, but you don’t want to poke his eyes out. He can be both ruthless and kind, and when he acts out violently he’s contrite.

But some infractions can’t be excused, and Marlena and Jacob find themselves dancing a very precarious tightrope duet of suppressed desire. Their animal attraction eventually pours out with catastrophic results.

Witherspoon’s costumer did a great job fitting her with theatrical spotlight attire and sleek Jean Harlow gowns for romantic nights on the town.

Pattinson seems to improve as the movie goes along, over-indicating at first but gradually relaxing into his naive, awkward character. And the endlessly entertaining Waltz moves beyond his silky-monster thing to create a character who deserves admiration and pity, as well as scorn.

Even if your circus taste runs more to Soleil than Ringling, there’s a lot here to like.


What: “Water For Elephants”

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Running time: 115 minutes

Rated: PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content


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