Water for Elephants (2011)

(On Cable TV, July 2017) As someone who doesn’t mind romantic movies but is easily bored with them, I’m reminded by Water for Elephants that the key to an interesting romance is largely made out of its setting. In this case, setting a relatively standard love triangle in the middle of a 1930s travelling circus feels like an instant shot of interest—watching the minutiae of a circus is fascinating to the point when it’s easy to tolerate the familiar romantic plot. None of the three main actors impress by going out of persona—Reese Witherspoon is her usual forgettable self, while Christoph Waltz genially chews scenery and Robert Pattinson continues to prove that he’s better than his Twilight character but not that far removed from it. Still, the star here is the travelling circus and its sub-culture, the details of setting up the big top every day and the challenges of trying to run a circus in depression-era America. It’s a great setting and you can lose yourself in the way the movie shows those details … before being brought to earth with the familiar love triangle featuring a good guy, a damsel in distress and an abusive husband. It wraps up satisfyingly, though, and that more than makes up for the familiar path trodden along the way. Production values are surprisingly good, and there’s a wealth of supporting characters who get a shining moment or two. I was surprised by Water for Elephants—I expected something duller and middle-of-the-road, but that was based on reading a plot summary—the actual film is far more generous than expected in its period details and richness of setting. I’ll take it.

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