Okay, I admit it: I'm one of the few people alive who did not read Sara Gruen's mega-bestselling novel about passion and mayhem under the Big Top during the Depression 1930s. But the bones of a satisfying romantic suspense story underlie Francis Lawrence's evocative film adaptation. The movie may not be 100% effective in its storytelling, or in the development of its central romance, but it comes steeped in period atmosphere, and conveys a keen sense of the precarious, knockabout gypsy life of a traveling circus.
Within a brief framing story about 90-something Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) found wandering around outside a modern-day circus after hours, this is essentially a coming-of-age saga told in flashback. On the day in 1931 that young Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is taking his final exam at Cornell to earn his veterinary license, an accident renders him both orphaned and homeless. Attempting to hop a freight train lands him in a boxcar belonging to a seedy traveling circus struggling to survive the Depression.
Jacob is soon smitten with fatal beauty Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the equestrienne whose bareback-riding act is the show's "star attraction." Unfortunately for him, she's also married to proprietor/ringmaster August Rosenblum (played with silky psychotic intensity by Christophe Waltz), a sadistic sociopath who works people and animals until they drop; roustabouts he can no longer afford to pay, or who are otherwise inconvenient are likely to be thrown off the speeding train in the dead of night by August's goons. Jacob knows enough to keep his distance, yet he and Marlena are drawn together by their shared concern for the welfare of the animals—especially August's new acquisition, Rosie, a smart, soulful, but much abused performing elephant who steals both their hearts.
Director Lawrence effectively captures the tawdry glamor of this far-from-greatest show on earth: the excitement of pounding in stakes and raising the big top in the morning, striking tents and whispering away at night, and the colorful parade of hucksters, clowns, trapeze artists, wild animals, hoochie-koochie girls, jugglers, fat ladies, freaks, and "rubes" (paying customers) who occupy the midway in between. The camaraderie that develops among the roustabouts to whom Jacob must prove himself is well done too.
Sadly, the crucial relationship between Jacob and Marlena never quite catches fire. It's very effective that they bond over the animals; both actors are at their most unguarded and appealing in their animal scenes. But with her Harlow-esque platinum curls and satin gowns, Witherspoon's Marlena never quite seems like a real person within this gritty environment. Granted, we're seeing her through Jacob's awestruck eyes, but she needs to have both a harder edge, and a deeper reserve of wounded vulnerability for us to care as deeply about her as Jacob is meant to.
For his part, Pattinson is appropriately youthful, stalwart, and at times gutsy. But as Jacob's romance with Marlena supposedly builds over a couple of chaste and careful slow dances, the actors never generate the heat of willful passion, nor the irresistible magnetism of true soulmates finding each other; it never feels like more than a schoolboy crush. However, Jacob's relationship with Rosie, the elephant, is beautifully done, from the flirty way she slides her trunk into his hands, to the moral fury he's driven to in her defense. Theirs is by far the most passionate and tender relationship in the film, and hers the story we care most about.