During the Great Depression homeless veterinary student Jacob (Pattinson) joins a struggling circus and falls in love with its star attraction, animal trainer Marlena (Witherspoon). When Marlenas husband, tyrannical circus owner August (Waltz), acquires
Adapted (by Richard LaGravenese) from a bestseller by Sara Gruen, this romantic period drama is exactly the sort of thing — an old person wistfully begins telling the story of a long-ago adventure, cueing richer colour and a 90-minute flashback — that gets made for television and airs in a weekday matinée slot. The difference is that made-for-TV jobbies invariably star people from cancelled TV series, whereas this Big Top turn has a big-screen budget and a cast led by Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson and Oscar-winners Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz.
Eighty-six year-old Hal Holbrook gamely kicks it off as Old Jacob Jankowski, who wanders geriatrically around a modern circus and is taken in by the young owner. When he learns Jacob is an old circus hand who survived a famous disaster of the 1930s, he settles in to hear the tale of the Benzini Bros’ travelling show. It’s one of tragedy, deceit, illusion, abuse, murder and, oh yes, secret love. Nastiness and brutality vie with attempts to evoke the magic of circus, but these have a desperate and unconvincing mood. While young boys of a bygone age may well have dreamed of orgies with Hootchie-Cootchie dancers and drunken dwarves, such outbursts of colourful fun are curiously joyless, and the romance feels equally forced. Thank heavens the climactic catastrophe is appropriately dreadful.
Witherspoon, it is said, loved the book. One suspects it was the costumes she loved best here, the pink sequins, marabou feathers and bias-cut frocks. For a dying circus whose unpaid roustabouts and moth-eaten animals are starving, she’s almost too glamorous, holding court in a handsomely appointed railway carriage boudoir. Pattinson is, in his quiet way, the sympathetic central character since his ardent, feeling young Jacob is the one commencing a big life journey. But Waltz’s terrifyingly unpredictable August is horribly fascinating, all charming and charismatic one moment and savagely sadistic the next.
Familiar but enjoyable. Not being funny, the elephant (Rosie, played by nine-foot enchantress Tai) is the real star as the most moving and only joyful presence in sight.