The Depression-era circus story Water For Elephants may be the most unapologetically old-fashioned melodrama to emerge from Hollywood since Memoirs of a Geisha (albeit without any race politics to muddy the waters). That is to say, except for the names and faces of the actors, you could have found the exact same movie, shot for shot and line for line, playing at a theater near you circa 1950—the last decade when “circus movies” were still a viable Hollywood sub-genre. The entire production, based on Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel, is predicated on being the kind of movie entertainment people went to see in presumably simpler times, when movies themselves occupied a more central place in the culture. And unlike Baz Luhrmann’s laborious exercises in self-conscious “Golden Age” Hollywood kitsch (Moulin Rouge!, Australia), or Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, Water For Elephants has been rendered by director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese—and by a very adept team of other artists and craftsmen—without a lick of postmodern irony. The movie may feel at times like a put-on, but it is in fact entirely sincere.
That sincerity turns out to be both a significant virtue and a crippling flaw. On the one hand, it’s easy to be seduced by any movie that appears so blithely unfettered by fashions and trends and that labors so intently, and so handsomely, at reproducing some of classical Hollywood’s most elemental attractions: beautiful matinee idols and ingenues cast as star-crossed lovers; exotic settings rife with danger and desire; all of it burnished with a warm, magic-hour glow. On the other hand, for people who actually remember those movies—admittedly not the target audience here—it’s impossible to watch Water For Elephants without being reminded that, back in the heyday of the Dream Factory, when the stars and directors and writers were themselves fed and watered by the studios like a well-kept circus menagerie, the movies themselves seemed somehow grander. Not all of them, of course—there were always second-tier stars and B-grade vehicles to service them, but Water For Elephants is unmistakably an “A” picture, with a couple of Oscar winners and a major teen idol in its cast. And while it would be easy to blame the actors (as some surely will) for lacking the magnetism of yesteryear, or the script for lacking so much as a single original idea (fair enough), it may simply be that the sort of lightning Water For Elephants is trying to capture in a bottle no longer streaks across the Hollywood skies.
Set mainly in 1931, the movie spins for its protagonist a tale of woe so sorrowful that it makes Tom Joad seem like a veritable freeloader. On the eve of his graduation from the veterinary medical program at Cornell, young Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), the proud son of Polish immigrants, learns that his parents have been killed in a car accident, and that they were in debt up to their eyeballs (in large part due to his tuition), and that the bank is going to repossess the family home. So a desperate, destitute Jacob jumps on a passing train, a train that turns out to belong to a traveling circus under the direction of the German-Jewish impresario August Rosenbluth (Inglourious Basterds's Christoph Waltz). A brass-tacks businessman with a pretty obvious sadistic streak—he trims unwanted men from his ranks by hurling them from the train, mid-ride—August doesn’t take kindly to interlopers. But he warms to Jacob, who he sees can be valuable to the operation as an in-house vet, and so too warms Rosenbluth’s wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the equestrian trick rider whose routine is the circus’ main event.
The characters and the conflicts in Water For Elephants are as broad as the big top itself: one look at Marlena and we know that, like everyone else in this extended family of shit-shovelers and sideshow freaks, she’s a victim of circumstance who’s ended up here because she has nowhere else to go. We don’t believe for a minute that she has any real affection for Rosenbluth, who, as written and as played by Waltz, is such a mustache-twirling heavy (prone to flying into violent rages against his animals) that Jacob’s eventual efforts to free Marlena from his grasp feel more like a rescue mission than the throes of grand passion. (Waltz, who reportedly dropped out of playing Sigmund Freud for David Cronenberg in order to take this part, should be very wary of going one too many times to the Col. Hans Landa well.) Around the half-way point, two tons of symbolic portent shows up in the form of Rosie, a seen-better-days elephant acquired by August from a bankrupt competitor. Soon, the inexperienced Jacob is assigned as her trainer, and just in case we don’t get the connection between this sensitive, beaten-down creature and her human counterpart, it turns out that Rosie speaks (or at least understands) Polish, too.
I’ve largely missed out on the cultural phenomenon known as RPatz, having only seen the 24-year-old heartthrob in the first of the Twilight movies and as the ill-fated Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But Pattinson seems grown-up here in a way he didn’t in those movies, and given the rather narrow dimensions of the role, I dare say he acquits himself reasonably well. He holds the screen when he’s on it, and unlike most of today’s younger stars—think Zac Efron in Me and Orson Welles—he actually looks like he could be someone from the Thirties. Witherspoon looks the part, too, especially decked out in costumes inspired by the likes of Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, et al.—in a movie of many glittering surfaces, few glitter more brilliantly. Neither of them have a chance, however, against Tai, the pachyderm who plays the preternaturally gifted Rosie, and who’s an even bigger ham than Waltz.
Lawrence, who previously directed the excellent I Am Legend, doesn’t bring the same surprising depth to this pop material that he did there, but he’s a superb visual craftsman, and Water For Elephants is never less than a pleasure to look at, wrapped in a warm, amber radiance by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, Frida) and meticulously designed by Jack Fisk, whose credits include There Will Be Blood and the films of Terrence Malick. They manage the feat of making the circus itself seem at once human-scale yet mythic, with lots of loving attention lavished on details like the raising of the tents, and the train traveling through the starry night, billowing smoke. Lawrence, too, seems more drawn to the background than foreground action, making affectionate business out of the late-night gatherings of show people, the gentle prodding of potential ticket buyers through the turnstiles, and the way great performers turn accidents into opportunities on a dime, without the audience so much as noticing. In moments like those, you sense the hand of a real director, biding his time with sub-par material, who might really surprise us someday.
Even more old-fashioned in a way, Denis Villeneuve’s magnificent Incendies might have been written by Aeschylus, so palpable is the sense of inexorable fate that binds its characters, closing in on them like a tightening vise. The movie takes the form of a mystery, with clues provided by a recently deceased Canadian émigré, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), whose will informs her twin adult children that their father, whom they believed to be dead, is in fact alive, and that they also have a brother whom they never knew existed. It is Narwal’s dying wish that her children should seek out their father and brother and deliver to them two sealed messages. Only then will Narwal be able to rest in peace.
That investigation leads Narwal’s daughter, Jeanne (the superb Mélissa Désormeaux Poulin) on an odyssey to her mother’s Middle Eastern homeland, an unnamed country clearly modeled on Lebanon, where decades of civil war have created an ocean of blood between a Christian ruling class and a radical Islamic insurgency. As Jeanne retraces her mother’s past, we see it play out in flashback, from an affair with a Mulsim refugee that makes the Christian Narwal an outcast in her own family, to a child she bears and abandons, to her search to find that child, and finally her own conversion from a peace-minded intellectual to a gun-toting radical. And the plot has only just begun to thicken.
Incendies, which was one of this year’s Foreign Language Oscar nominees (and a far more deserving winner than the trite In a Better World) arrives in theaters on the heels of Julian Schnabel’s Miral, which also tells a multi-generational story of women in peril in a Middle Eastern war zone. But unlike Schnabel, Villeneuve (who adapted the stage play by Lebanese-Canadian writer Wajdi Mouawad) has no need—or room—in his film for cardboard martyrs, secular saints and romantic revolutionaries. Incendies—the title translates as “scorched”—is a brutal, somberly beautiful film in which war is only a tally of losses sustained by both sides, and where one woman strives, from beyond the grave, to create a momentary break in the cycle of violence.
In his fourth feature film (but only the first to be released in the United States), the Québecois Villeneuve shows a powerful command of the camera, his actors and the material. This is the sort of movie, smart about geo-politics, but equally rich and complex in human emotions, that Costa-Gavras was making in his prime—and as the pieces of the elaborate jigsaw snap into place, and we realize the extent to which the characters have been borne back into the past, all the while trying to escape it, the cumulative effect is shattering. I mentioned Aeschylus at the outset, and the presence of the Greek tragedians is felt not only in the story of Incendies, but in the rhetorical repetitions that punctuate the dialogue: the name of Narwal Marwan herself, a fearsome sniper known as Nihad of May, a town called Daresh, a refugee camp called Deressa. You will not soon forget those names and places. You will no sooner forget this movie.
Water For Elephants now playing nationwide. Incendies now playing in New York and Los Angeles.