‘Water for Elephants’: A Dark but Pretty Period Drama


From the better part of my movie viewing experience I’ve learned that I do not particularly take to or like movies that start in the present day, and then go back decades to tell its primary story. Even though there are a rare few that I don’t mind, it’s not a storytelling tool I like. The use of it in Water for Elephants is one that doesn’t sit well with me.

Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson in Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants (2011) Film Review

The future is bright for the newly graduated vet. Yet with the opening of a door, Jacob’s life changes in a single instant. A student with commitment, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) never imagines how his world may change on the morning of his test. Before he can complete his test, he learns that his parents die in a car accident. Without the means to have a future, Jacob sets out for places unknown, walking the rail line until the night that he lands right in the middle of the Benzini brother’s circus troupe.

It just takes one day for Jacob to see to the welfare of the animals. He soon catches the attention of the boss and ringmaster August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz). His stowaway doesn’t impress August until Jacob makes him an offer he cannot refuse; he convinces August to let him travel with the troupe as a vet. Life carries on quietly until Jacob meets the charming star attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

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‘Water for Elephants’: A Dark but Pretty Period Drama. A review of the 2011 adaptation with Reese Witherspoon. Text © Rissi JC

I think this is a movie that viewers are pretty split over. Based on Sara Gruen’s novel of the same name (trivia fact: this novel was originally written as a part of NaNoWriMo), I’m under the impression that the movie is less violent and graphic. I’ll say this Water for Elephants does have a few surprises. I wasn’t expecting much from it nor was I particularly in the mood to watch such a movie when I finally did rent it.

Despite my misgivings, the film does have a way of drawing you in. I cannot put my finger on what it has that most stories do not, but after watching this for less than thirty minutes, I “liked” the movie. For the most part, the story moves at a slower, careful pace yet it’s not boring. The detail and costumes are breathtaking, and I just love everything about the “look” of the production. Every hairstyle and costume looks very period authentic.

Reese Witherspoon stars in this 2011 adaptation with Christoph Waltz and Robert Pattinson. ‘Water for Elephants’: A Dark but Pretty Period Drama. #PeriodDrama #Movies #Romance #MovieArchives Click To Tweet
‘Water for Elephants’: A Dark but Pretty Period Drama. A review of the 2011 adaptation with Reese Witherspoon. Text © Rissi JC

Unlike most viewers, nothing bothers me more, not its themes of extra-marital affairs (more on this later down the page) or its mistreatment of animals, as did the contempt some of the characters have for human life. I do not believe abuse in any form is right and while I disagree with animal abuse, it also doesn’t “affect” me as it does so many. Although some viewers feel that August loves Marlena, I do not. August’s ill use of not only his employees (especially Jacob) but also his wife is appalling. Jacob is drawn to Marlena early on in the film but she rarely speaks to him – at first. Eventually, this changes; she grows to appreciate his moral ethics and character.

As film productions go, this one is somewhere in the middle on my scale of “worst to best.” It does have a kind of engaging quality without being a truly great, epic story. The cast makes it entertaining if nothing else does. It has an academy-award winner and a teen heartthrob to boot. If you like this timeframe (depression era), then this may be worth a rental. It’s melancholy without really needing to be, and if I have to guess, I’d say the novel is much the same. Just know, you may question its ethics and morals.

CONTENT: the film is PG13 because of a clothed sexual scene with some bare leg and movement. There’s some profanity but I don’t recall anything more than h*ll or da*n. A lot of physical abuse is present including spousal [bruises, a slap across the face] and animal [this is more an implication]; several men receive severe beatings. One man nearly kills another; later, there’s a murder and someone tries to murder a woman. An animal is shot to death [impact off-screen] in order to end its suffering and another is glimpsed lying down with severe wounds. A lot of alcohol consumption is present during the film.

About Rissi JC

amateur graphic designer. confirmed bookaholic. bubbl’r enthusiast. critical thinker. miswesterner. social media coordinator. writer.


  1. my aunt just saw this and said it was really good. i'm looking forward to it… (if only to see robert pattinson♥♥♥ eeeeeeeeek!) sorry. i had an uncontrollable outbreak. i'm good now. :) thanks for the review.

  2. I'm glad you "liked" it. =)

    One of the more powerful aspects of the story IS its emphasis on human life being more valuable than animals — August's abhorrent behavior toward his animals (wanting to work a horse to death, feeding the lions rotten meat, and beating Rosie) was merely an indication of his disdain and disregard for human life — throwing men off the train so he did not have to pay them, and beating his wife into submission. It is one of the more profoundly honest depictions of an abusive individual that I have ever seen — the rash, impassioned, cruel actions followed by the remorse and self-berating and attempts to win back her favor. No, he didn't love his wife. He owned her, just like he owned Rosie.

  3. Jessica – awesome; I am glad your aunt enjoyed this one! I hope you do, too! And, you are most welcome for the review. =)

    Charity – I probably liked this better than I expected; it is definitely one I would rent again.

    I was just too appalled by August's behavior to even notice a parallel or "deeper" meaning. I'd completely agree with you though that he merely thought he "owned" Marlena, and that is not a loving marriage. At least one viewer whose review I half read over thought he did love her "in his own way" and I was like; "yeah, I don't think so."

    Great thoughts! =)

  4. Ehhh…not the movie for me… :)
    Haha, 'cause I WOULD be the one to have a problem with the affair type thing. :P And August? I would have to turn off the movie to keep from thinking very violent thoughts toward him… :D

  5. Trinka – this movie is… of a "different" sort, but for some reason I did like it. I think it was because I wasn't expecting that…

    Believe me, I am not condoning the affair between Jacob and Marlena, I am only saying it doesn't surprise me given Hollywood's propensity to make us believe that is "love" – that the purely physical is all there is to true love; it is not true.

    August was way more evil than expected – but the actor made a truly detestable villain, so it wasn't hard to detest him, and I never once felt sorry for him! Your comment about him made me smile. =D

  6. I saw this film in theaters and really enjoyed it — rather surprised by how much. It is not without issues, but very engrossing and thought-provoking — great review!

  7. This was definitely a "surprise" movie for me, too, Ruth. I liked it better than anticipated and although I don't think I'll ever own it, I could certainly see myself renting it on occasion. Plus I think Reese is adorable. =)

    The fact that August had such little regard for mankind was… well… irritating but I did enjoy the film.

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