During the Great Depression, Jacob (Robert Pattinson), a penniless 23-year-old veterinary school student, parlays his expertise with animals into a job with a second-rate traveling circus. He falls in love with Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), one of the show's star performers, but their romance is complicated by Marlena's husband, the charismatic but unbalanced circus boss (Christoph Waltz).

2.5
Nostalgic circus drama let down by unconvincing three-ringed romance.

Nothing disappoints more than the film that seems to get everything right yet ends up feeling just a little bit wrong. Francis Lawrence’s Water For Elephants, adapted from Sara Gruen’s bestseller, is the latest frustrating near-miss: so lavishly beautiful in parts, yet so romantically anaemic, that one’s attention unavoidably wavers.

The recollections of an old man (Hal Holbrook) underpin the melodrama and give some relevance to the rose-coloured version of life during the Depression. The comfortable middle-American existence of Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is thrown into turmoil by tragedy and he is forced to hit the road, penniless and without direction. Hopping a freight car, he finds himself amongst the carny folk of the famous Benzini Brothers circus and is soon welcomed into their fold. Though his first meeting with the charismatic but unbalanced ringmaster August Rosenbluth (Christolph Waltz) almost ends in his being flung from the train, his Ivy League education in veterinary science saves his hide. However, it is a double-edged sword – August abuses his animal stars as brutally as his human staff and Jacob is soon in conflict with him over the troupe’s star attraction, a white thoroughbred ridden by the boss’ wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

The circus soon falls on tough times (even tougher for some: worker head counts dwindle overnight and fuel rumours of murderous cost-cutting measures). All seems lost until a chance encounter with the remnants of a shuttered circus group presents a godsend – Rosie, a trained elephant that August knows he can exploit mercilessly into profitability. Jacob and Marlena are assigned to create an act with Rosie and the close proximity and warmth they share with the pachyderm begins to manifest as delicate mutual desire. Suffice to say, complications ensue...

From the gorgeous, rain-soaked opening scenes, to various stagings of 'The Most Spectacular Show on Earth’, Lawrence exploits to the fullest, the immense talents of his top-tier production team: DOP Rodrigo Prieto (Babel and Brokeback Mountain); composer James Newton Howard; The Fisher King scriptwriter Richard Lagravenese; legendary production designer Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood; the upcoming The Tree of Life); ...Benjamin Button costumer Jacqueline West. There is little doubt that 20th Century Fox had this tagged as a major awards contender at some point, given the affection for Gruen’s 2006 novel and the Oscar-heavy credentials of its cast and crew.

But problems arise from the love triangle that centres the narrative. After a first act that sets up the characters and conflicts that are to play out, Water For Elephants stagnates. Pattinson, perfectly serviceable in the lead role, hardly oozes sufficient personality or promise to inspire Marlena to betray August. Witherspoon, though lovely and watchable as always, is miscast; frankly, the part required an ageing, less perky actress to convey the desperation of her situation – a Patricia Arquette-, Tea Leoni- or Demi Moore-type would have given the film a darker, deeper dimension. Witherspoon’s ill-defined Marlena leaves audiences grasping for a relatable character to give some impetus to the drama. Christolph Waltz is a one-dimensional, lip-smacking bad guy (occasional scenes of him contemplating his actions seem disingenuous), but he plays his part so vividly that his presence is always welcome. And, yes, Tai as Rosie gives by far the most emotionally-engaging performance.

There is a certainly a warm sense of 'Gee, they don’t make them like this anymore!" about Water For Elephants; a film set in the antiquated world of a 1920s big top has every right to be chaste in its depiction of lustful longings, and to indulge in fanciful, sunlit visions of the heartland dustbowl. In fact, the film’s very old-fashioned sense of right and wrong is refreshing, and is conveyed with precision. However, the need for strong plotting and characterisation in a big-screen drama never goes out of vogue, and it’s on these terms that Water For Elephants feels truncated.