Greetings again from the darkness. Everyone loves the circus (except those who are scared of clowns). Everyone loves trains (except those who are scared of wrecks). Everyone loves performing animals (as long as they are a safe distance). Combine those elements with a best-selling novel, three popular actors and a twist on Titanic and you end up with a very watchable, though slightly mundane dramatic love story.
You are probably wondering where I came up with the Titanic reference. Allow me to explain. The story begins with an old man caught in a rain storm. We quickly find out Hal Holbrook is playing the Robert Pattinson character as an old man. Mr. Holbrook’s character corresponds to Gloria Stuart‘s character in Titanic. Both provide flashback detail to a love story engulfed in tragedy. On top of that, both have twinkly blue eyes! Paul Schneider is in the Bill Paxton role … trying his best to get the secrets of what really happened so many years ago.
The story is based on Sara Gruen‘s best selling novel and is set in depression-soaked 1931. Jacob (Pattinson) is sitting for his Cornell veterinarian finals when he is notified of a family tragedy. He promptly sets out on the road and jumps a train. Not just any train … the Benzini Brothers Circus train! He is taken under the wing of Camel, the old timer played well by silky-voiced Jim Norton. Soon enough he is summoned to meet the circus owner. A brief meeting leads first to the order to toss Jacob off the train, but he is saved by his knowledge of animal medicine – a valuable commodity in the circus world.
Now is as good of time as any to let you know that the great Christoph Waltz plays August, the circus owner. As in his Oscar winning role for Inglourious Basterds, Waltz’ August is alternatingly charming and chilling. He is a ruthless circus owner who values no man or animal. He values only making money and his star attraction and wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Oh, and just because he values her, doesn’t mean he treats her well. He is near-psychotic when he goes off on her or anyone or anything else. Pause … then a few minutes later, he is back to his charming self. Very frightening stuff.
Of course, it’s not surprising that Jacob is enchanted with Marlena (a bareback rider) or that she returns the affection. What is surprising is that they continue to push the boundaries of good sense while within the confines of the circus group – and August. You can imagine the confrontations and situations that arise, but Marlena’s insistence that no life exists for her outside the circus is a head-scratcher.
The story really picks up when the struggling circus purchases a performing elephant named Rosie. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Rosie may be the smartest character in the film. She is certainly the most crucial for Marlena and Jacob.
The screenplay is from Richard Gravenese who has a track record with this type of story. He was also responsible for The Horse Whisperer and Bridges of Madison County. What’s surprising is the director is Francis Lawrence, previously known for I Am Legend and Constantine. This movie has (thankfully)no resemblance to those films and his cast and crew obviously help him adjust to a more melodramatic storyline.
What I like about the film are the realistic characters and the setting. The trains, big top, circus performers and workers all seem real, as do the few circus scenes presented. Without the Christoph Waltz character and performance, this film would be truly just a run-of-the-mill dramatic love story. His element and the realistic circus life make this one worthwhile.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the circus or the book or the three lead actors OR you thought Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes was the creepiest Ringleader ever
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t handle a bit of melodrama with your trip to the circus OR a performing elephant who understands Polish is just a bit too far outside the comfort zone