Our Rating: 3 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Every child wants to run away and join the circus, but for adults, that magical place with wild animals and blinking lights can be far more dangerous...
Though the rest of the nation is facing the Great Depression, one small Polish-American family is quite content. Their son Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is about to take his exams and graduate with honors from veterinarian school, and he leaves them that morning with a bounce in his step, certain that his life is about to change... and change it does, but not for the better. When his parents are killed in a car accident, Jacob is left without a family or a home when he discovers that his father mortgaged everything he had to earn enough for Jacob's school tuition. Hoping he can find work in the city, Jacob sets out like so many others along the road -- until a train comes along. It is not just any train on which he climbs, but a circus train and the kindly Camel (Jim Norton) offers him a chance to earn his keep, if he is willing to work hard.
It is a world of wonder to Jacob and of the greatest interest to him is the main attraction, the exquisite Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and her beautiful black and white horses. To his disappointment, she is married to the Ringmaster, August (Christoph Waltz), who takes an immediate shine to Jacob and on discovering he is a veterinarian, offers him a job with the show. But when Jacob's opinion conflicts with August's when it comes to one of the horses, he soon discovers a much darker side to circus life. And that is when a very special elephant named Rosie enters their lives...
Writing a review for a film like this is extremely difficult, because I am of two minds in the sense that while objecting to the morality of the production, I am also not immune to what a great film it truly is. Pushing aside any religious objections for the moment, I loved this movie. It was beautiful -- it was beautiful in its artistry, in its characterization, in its musical score, and in its message about valuing life, no matter if it is an elephant or a human being. Many movies place animals before people and this one does not; emphasis is placed on yes, we must love animals and care for them, but people are ultimately more important. That does not devalue the animals or how majestic and vulnerable they are to human abuses, but it reminds us to look after both. And that is what Jacob does. One of the most profound moments in the film is when he tells Marlena that she deserves a better life and he wants that for her -- whether or not it is with him. The audience I saw this with was also very receptive to it and that in regard, it hits all the right cinematic notes -- there were horrified gasps, stunned silences, sniffles, and even applause in one scene.
It is a story you will become emotionally involved with even if the romance is not as powerful as I would have hoped; while Witherspoon and Pattinson are attractive together, they lack the intensity that would have made it even stronger. Fortunately, the emotion of other scenes and the strength of the leading men prevents the film from faltering too much. Oscar-winner Waltz turns in another tremendous performance that will literally make your skin crawl -- he is intensely frightening once his charm fades. And there is where my moral objectivity kicks in: even though he is an awful person, August is still Marlena's husband. She is not free to love Jacob, even if she chooses to do so -- and one cannot blame her. I will say, however, that they show resistance through almost the entire story, attempting to not take their attraction too far. In fact, if it were not for them eventually sleeping together, I would have given it a pass, because it is apparent that they are trying very hard to do the right thing. But at the end of the day, adultery is still wrong even if the husband is abusive.
Content-wise, this is much tamer than it could have been given the serious thematic elements involved. Sensuality is the biggest problem but that is dealt with in restrained ways; the circus employs women who perform stripteases for men (we see her bare back and shoulders); there are some sexual references and a few comments about private parts. Girls crowd around and flirt with and/or kiss Jacob on two occasions, and early on in a voice-over he muses that he might make it into a girl's bed. Jacob wakes up after a night of drinking to find he has been dressed in women's clothes and stuffed into a trunk (a circus prank, to welcome him). There is one love scene between Marlena and Jacob -- it involves the removal of clothing (no nudity) and gentle but prolonged kissing before the scene fades out. Language is mild but does include a few crude terms and four abuses of GD. Violence against humans include several brutal fist-fights, a woman being slapped hard enough to knock her to the ground, and other scuffles; wild animals get loose in the big tent and trample the crowd. While attempting to strangle a woman to death, a man is killed with a blow to the back of the head. We see the bodies of two men who have been thrown from a fast-moving train and killed; numerous references are made to others who "disappeared" in the same manner.
Animal lovers will find several scenes very difficult to watch -- a horse must be put down when it is injured too badly to perform; it is shot (unseen but the gunshot is heard); a man violently and repeatedly on three separate occasions jabs an elephant with a bull prod (it has a sharp barb on the end, which cuts through her skin and leaves bloody gashes); the most brutal abuse transpires off-camera, although we hear the elephant screaming in pain and see the train car she is chained in rocking. We later see her laying in the car on her side, covered in blood. Though these moments haunt us, there are also many happy scenes with Rosie to counter them. Many characters drink (as do the animals, Rosie especially likes whiskey) -- often illegal substances, as this is during Prohibition. One man loses the mobility of his legs as a result.
While I cannot condone how far their physical relationship went, there is something special and even magical about this film, although it is a serious drama. I suspect that it will become popular for its actors, primarily Pattinson, although I think the story will endure. It even ends on a happy note, one guaranteed to bring a little lump to your throat.