Pattinson’s acting skills: the elephant in the room

May 5, 2011

Film of the Week: Robert Pattinson and Reece Witherspoon’s circus romp gets cold response

The line, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the most spectacular show on earth" is a dangerous one with which to open a film trailer, but it seems all the more misplaced in Water for Elephants, a superficial but entertaining novel adaptation.
The advert makes the movie look like Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge meets Cecil DeMille's 1952 classic, The Greatest Show on Earth, but sadly director Francis Lawrence's new offering fails to capture the charm of either.
Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame plays Jacob, the boy whose promising career as a veterinarian is cut short after his parents die in a car accident. Despairing, he runs away and hops on a freight train, which just happens to be carrying the famous Benzini Brothers circus.
The critics remain undecided on Pattinson's acting ability, with some going as far as calling him "woefully untalented" (Marshall Fine, Huffington Post). Others are more lenient. Tom Charity writing for CNN points out that "this slender, smouldering 24-year-old is destined to be patronised by the critics and probably a good part of the male population for a while, but he looks like the real deal to me".
Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde) gets a warmer reception for her performance as the abused and dependent wife of the circus master, Marlena. "She's as fetching as ever," reports Todd McCarthy for the Hollywood Reporter.

But while her appeal remains universally acknowledged, for many, including Richard Corliss (TIME), she fails to deliver anything different. "Witherspoon offers no hint of the sultry or sensual; she's the nice soccer mom somebody stuck on top of an elephant."
By all accounts the star of the show is Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) whose fiery ringmaster, August, is the one really engaging aspect of the film. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips admits that, "Waltz is just so damned interesting to watch", while Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal calls him "a surpassingly subtle actor [although] directed to play coarsely".
What is missing, bemoans Stephen Holden in the New York Times, is the "pungent vision of rough-and-tumble circus life in hard times" that was the main appeal of the original Sara Gruen novel.
Stuffed to the tent-top with stunning cinematography, beautiful costumes and adorable animals (of which 42-year-old Rosie the Elephant is the star), the film is certainly shiny. But without the book's freaks, unsavoury characters and grit, the film is incapable of delivering little more than a pretty picture for most of its two hours.

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