The film opens and closes in the present, with an escapee from a nursing home (touchingly created by Hal Holbrook as Jake Jankowski) who sits in the office of a circus agent with whom he reminisces as he longs for the circus life of his past. As he narrates, his voice and appearance change into a youthful Jake (Robert Pattinson) 70 years earlier - when he falls into a job with a traveling circus (like dozens of other men with Hobson's choice during those jobless days), gets to know and secretly love Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), star of the one-ring show. They share their appreciation of animals as well as fear & hate of Marlena's husband August (Christoph Waltz, as fiendishly menacing as he was in "Inglorious Basterds"). Catalyst is Rosie, an elephant that takes orders only in Polish and becomes the featured attraction of the ring. She moves the star-crossed lovers closer together and closer still to a frightening denouement, one that sends us back to the present with a lachrymose ending.
Richard LaGravenes' script, Francis Lawrence's direction, and all the cinematic trappings (including Rodrigo Prieto's fully orchestrated appropriately lush music to Jack Fisk's more-vibrant-than-life photography - dramatically Rembrandt-lit) give the film its romanticized look of a movie made during the classic era of the 30s & 40s. Details are vivid (occasional briefly visible goof-ups in production details notwithstanding), there's a distinctive ring of slightly varnished truth here.
Life in this circus glows with the mystical charm of "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "Aurora Dawn," retaining that old-fashioned look and feel - tents going up, roustabouts laboring in tandem, backstage preps for the acts, etc. - despite the basic underlying ugliness and cruelty demonstrated within it.
The film is founded on August's cynical statement that, "The world is built on tricks," adding that rules do not work for a circus - a statement that he alone accepts, which the love-struck pair must of course repudiate. The plot flows with the strong narrative style of the old classics; it hints at the backdrop of a nation trapped in a great depression only when necessary, focuses primarily on anything that will induce audience emotions regarding the main trio of characters and how they deal with a darkening of dread creeping into their trapped lives.
Who should see the film? The multitude of young femmes who also are infatuated with love affairs with a handsome young vampire, who savor emotion-drenched novels with all their exotic characters and who flock to luxuriate emotionally at films made from them - and anyone else who longs for the aura of the old classics as it permeates the entire two hours of this movie, right to its emotion-drenched clincher. (Grade: B+)