WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
In 1930s upstate New York, Polish immigrant teenager Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is sitting his final exam to qualify as a vet at the prestigious Cornell University, when tragedy strikes.
He quits the exam, drops out of university and heads off to make a new life for himself.
He catches a ride on a passing train which turns out to be carrying the Benzini Brothers circus.
Our hero is taken under the wing of one of the back-stage workers, who helps him get a job – initially shovelling the manure left behind by his favourite act – the four horses that perform with the beautiful young Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).
The scene is set from the moment Jacob discovers that Marlena is married to the ruthless ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz), who doesn’t think twice about throwing dissenters off the moving train between shows. But his brutality to his animals, staff – and wife – is based on fear of going out of business and jealousy; he’s not so much evil as insecure.
When August discovers that Jacob studied veterinary science, he promotes the newcomer, getting him to look after the animals, rather than dispose of their waste. And when the circus takes on a new star attraction – Rosie the middle-aged elephant – Jacob is asked to train her and work closely Marlena on her new act.
The more Jacob and Marlena cooperate, the closer they grow – which rubs the increasingly desperate August up the wrong way in a love triangle that can only lead to more drama outside the ring than in it.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
Since this is based on the novel by Sara Gruen, it’s one of those situations where it’s unfair to criticise the plot, because the film-makers were rather limited by the source material, although the question remains as to why they thought the story would work as a film.
Dramatically, the key problem is that what is set up – in the opening scene – as a film about “the third greatest circus tragedy in history” turns out not to be a tragedy at all.
OK, so something dramatic and fairly tragic does happen, but that doesn’t make the film a tragedy in the context of a traditional film-structure.
Plot-wise, there are also rather too many convenient coincidences – including the way they start getting through to Rosie – and inconsistencies – not least the way characters flip allegiances from scene to scene.
The chemistry between Jacob and Marlena fails to sizzle – him being ten years younger than her is only the beginning of the problems – his inability to express much emotion doesn’t help.
The only characters worth watching are August – Christoph Waltz on his usual scene-stealing form – and Rosie – but given that the elephant was brought in to steal the show, it’s no surprise that she does.
Seeing 86 year old Hal Holbrook on screen is always a bonus, but all he does is bookend the film as an old Jacob, recalling his experiences of his days with the circus. I don’t care whether it featured in the book or not – what the present-day exposition added to the narrative (the revelation that once the circus gets into your bones, it stays there) is not surprising enough to warrant the extra minutes that’s added to a sumptuous but unconvincing period drama.
Most of those involved in this film should be so embarrassed, they’ll probably want to run off with the circus.