Jacob Jankowski is an aspiring trainee veterinarian at the prestigious Cornell US University during the depression.

Abruptly torn from his studies he quite literally, albeit unintentionally, runs off to join the circus.

The story is told in flashback by the 90 year Jacob (Hal Holbrook), recounting his story which segues into Jacob as a young man (Robert Pattinson).

The Benzini Brothers circus is exciting, rough, brutal and desperate for money. Preying on the abandoned remains of other circuses that failed to attract an audience.

The whole travelling troupe are governed by the less than benevolent ringmaster, in every sense of the word, August (Christopher Waltz). One of the star attractions also happens to be his wife, the bare back horse riding Mariena (Reece Witherspoon).

Jacob’s veterinary skills are soon uncovered, used and then boasted as a badge of honour by August, his constant desire to beat other circuses even extending to a full time Ivy League Vet.

The circus is pulled from town to town on a very cinematically filmed train, well illustrated by a beautifully played scene atop the train. Punters are fooled, amazed and generally relieved of any spare cash they have, before the whole enterprise pulls up tent pegs and moves on.

This is set during the depression, the animals are looked after little better than the humans who may be tossed from the train at any time, if the wage bill needs a little trimming.

This is at heart a love story and whilst the leads are effective and Pattinson, probably enjoying not looking pale for a while, does not let the side down in this post Twilight starring role. However, there is little chemistry on display with Mariena and even the many animal scenes, curiously leave you emotionally disengaged.

The period setting is interesting to watch and it is clear that Waltz’s recent Oscar win for “Inglorious Basterd’s” was no fluke. He again scorches the screen in every scene, displaying another well dressed psychopath who can be charming one moment and chillingly murderous the next. Compared to the other performers, his characterization holds the film together and demands audiences attention.

Witherspoon clearly has learn’t some performing tricks and does well but seems more alive and believable whenever Waltz shares the screen. There are short periods where the story flags but it’s difficult to dislike any film with a performing circus elephant (Rosie) for too long.

The reality of the times and struggle to live, for everyone, animals, circus and staff alike, is intriguing and the suggestion of a more innocent townsfolk, is neatly evoked. In the Internet age, a few tigers, lions, clowns and even the performing elephant, would not be enough to hold many children’s attention for long.

Based on the book by Sarah Gruen


A romantic historical circus drama, formulaic in places but enjoyable enough entertainment with another winning performance by Waltz.