The story of a Depression-era orphan with an all but completed study from a prestigious university, this film centers around Jacob Jankowski. First seen as an elderly man (Hal Holbrook) Jankowski was studying to become a veterinarian when his parents died in debt after exhausting their savings to pay his tuition. With no home or money to complete his studies, Jankowski (as a younger man played by Robert Pattinson) simply abandons his home, studies, and life in search of employment. This search ended when he hopped a train utilized by the Benzini Bros. traveling circus.
After a brief stint shoveling excrement, August Rosenbluth, the man in charge, hires him as Benzini Bros. own Cornell educated veterinarian. Rosenbluth is played by Christopher Waltz who soon proves to be just as evil as he was when he was playing an SS officer. His long-suffering wife is played by Reese Witherspoon who is the star of the big top with her equestrian act and with a similar elephant act. But when the act struggles to take shape in the beginning, Rosenbluth demonstrates the brutality lying beneath his charismatic show persona by viciously attacking the elephant. He later appears sickened by his actions, but Jacob is certain he’ll repeat them and determined to prevent that from happening.
In developing the act, Marlena (Witherspoon) and Jacob become attracted to each other. While trying to keep their relationship a secret, they’re eventually found out. This and other tensions arising from the shows continuing financial struggles eventually boil over in the form of an employee insurrection, the result of which was alluded to in earlier scenes with the older Jankowski.
Whether Titanic started it or simply solidified it, Leonardo DiCaprio became the dream of teenage girls everywhere thanks to the James Cameron opus. And, as a result of that and a genuine dislike for the story and the film, I have hated DiCaprio ever since. He’s made, for the most part, quality films ever since and I’m convinced he’s so not for his career but simply to annoy me. Others would argue he has no idea who I am, but I feel that’s immaterial.
Pattinson, thanks to the Twilight series, finds himself in a similar position. With this and Remember Me he seems intent on making quality films to annoy me. Witherspoon and Waltz, while demonstrating great range with these roles, are more than adequate. The story is engrossing, the scenery spectacular, and the ending is satisfying (though I understand the book version was far more dramatic). All in all, I’d call this a superior film.