Director Francis Lawrence (I AM LEGEND) and writer Richard LaGravenese (THE FISHER KING) do a rare cinematic achievement when having a book as the source material — they make the story better. They made all the right choices in what to cut, keep and change. The changes make the film more dramatic, but not in a maudlin way. Everything that happens is more immediate. The Depression-era setting only reminds us of the melodramas of that age, which this film fits in with surprisingly well.
Jacob (Robert Pattinson, TWILIGHT) was taking his last final in veterinary sciences at Cornell when he gets word that his parents have died in a car accident. They had mortgaged their house and business to pay for his education, so the bank takes everything. Now orphaned, he decides to jump a train. Luckily, he ends up on a circus train in the car of Camel (Jim Norton, STRAW DOGS), a friendly, drunk roustabout who helps him get work. When it’s found that he is an Ivy League vet, he is taken before the boss, August (Christoph Waltz, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), an intimidating man who isn’t unfamiliar with violence as a way of making people do what he wants.
What he wants Jacob to do is look at the limp of his star horse. Jacob’s prognosis is not good. August doesn’t want to hear it; the horse will work until it drops. Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, WALK THE LINE), the horse performer, doesn’t want to see the creature suffer anymore. Jacob makes the decision to put the animal down. A connection between Marlena and Jacob is formed. Later she will say, “Where were you when I was 19?” Too bad she’s married to August.
Marlena and Jacob only become closer after August dumps all the circus’s savings into an elephant and tells the duo to make an act out of it. The problem is that the elephant doesn’t do anything, which just makes August furious. Ever see a bull hook? If you’re Rosie the elephant, you wish you never did.
Many of the changes from the book simply tighten the narrative for the screen. In making August the boss instead of just an animal trainer, he becomes more of a threat. His erratic behavior is only heightened with his power to redlight someone. Redlighting is when a circus member is cut from the troupe by being thrown from the train while it’s still moving. Camel is made Polish, which is more important than you might think. Marlena is made an orphan, which creates a quick bond with Jacob. Other plot changes make the action quicker, because events flow as more of an action and reaction.
Hal Holbrook (INTO THE WILD) plays Jacob as an old man in bookend scenes at a circus. The beginning scene adds a nice dose of foreshadowing of tragic events to come. The final sequence with the older Jacob brings the story of the orphaned young man who ran away to the circus full circle.
The great Holbrook also brings real emotion to the material. Pattinson is just asked to bring his trademark brooding. His character is on the page and not in his performance. Witherspoon and Waltz create the perfect abusive dependent relationship. She loves her husband, because she fears feeling anything else. He took her in and the circus is all she really has. Jacob represents another choice. The first real alternative she's ever had. But that doesn't make it any easier to break free from the chains that hold her back. Witherspoon gives her character fragility without making her a wilting flower. Waltz gives his cruel villain depth. Given the best character from the book, his violence is a defense mechanism to the things in the world he can't control. He knows it's wrong, but when something snaps, he can't see that. When he's up, we can see why Marlena fell for his charms. But when he's down, we can also see why she is afraid to leave.
The 1930s circus world is captured beautifully and adds a dose gritty realism to the overall story. Jacob and Marlena come together is this often cruel world over an act of compassion. Even though he's lost everything, Jacob knows he has other options, which is more than anyone else on the show. But in Marlena, Rosie and his circus friends, he finds a new family. He turns into the big brother who can't leave his younger siblings with an abusive father. As a result, he is forced to grow and take responsibility for others like the head of any family does. This is a love story, but not just between Jacob and Marlena.