WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is based on a best selling novel with the same title. I haven't read the novel, but movie is pretty good. It's old-fashioned romantic drama set in the world of a traveling circus during the height of the depression. The cinematography is beautiful; the acting is top notch; and the story delivers the kind of satisfaction you might get from a Hollywood film made during the 1940's or 50's. Only this movie is better made than most films of that era.
The Benzini Brothers circus is far from being "the most spectacular show on earth." In fact, in 1931, it's barely surviving, kept alive by the ruthlessness of August, its cunning ringmaster and owner, played by Academy Award winner Christopher Waltz (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS). His performance alone makes the film worth seeing.
But the central character is a young man escaping desperate circumstances who climbs onto the circus train and very nearly gets thrown off for his trouble. But then August discovers that Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson of the TWILIGHT series) possesses the skills of a veterinarian, someone August can rely on to help keep his animals alive.
August is a complicated character, cruel and violent but also charming and smart and occasionally even contrite. But the fact that he fires people by throwing them off the train as it speeds down the track shows how dangerous he is. He tells Jacob, "You must learn, my dear boy, that the rules of these United States of Suckers do not apply to us."
 August is very smart but he doesn't anticipate that his wife Marlena, played by Reese Witherspoon, will bond with the young man as they take care of the newly purchased elephant she'll be riding under the big top. It's a situation fraught with peril for the platinum blonde who grew up poor in foster families. "And then the circus came to town," she tells Jacob, "and August was right out front. As soon as he looked at me I knew I'd never live with strangers again." By today's standards that not a good enough reason to stay with a sadist. But in the middle of the depression in 1931, it probably was sufficient motivation.
The two young people try to suppress their attraction, for they know August might kill both of them if he knew. But their strong feelings for each other cannot be denied.
"There's a better kind of life that's meant for you," Jacob tells Marlena, "whether that life is with me or not." Will she join him and run away from the circus? Will they be caught if that's what they decide to do?
If you don't like old Hollywood style love stories, don't bother to see WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, but if you don't mind the melodramatic qualities of this kind of story, you'll enjoy this very well made throwback to the romantic dramas of more than half a century ago.