A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this romantic drama based on Sara Gruen's best-selling novel features some disturbing scenes of domestic abuse, animal cruelty, and other violence. The romance includes a few kisses and one love scene between stars Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, but it's dimly lit and shows very little skin. Violence includes an animal being put down, another animal bloody and lethargic after a beating with a hook, a woman nearly being strangled to death, and the then-common practice of "redlighting" -- throwing circus workers off a moving train. Two "redlighted" characters are shown dead and sprawled among rocks, and the main character's dead parents are briefly shown in the morgue. With its mature themes and the central abusive relationship, this movie isn't always easy to watch, but it does encourage women to leave abusers before it's too late.
What's the story?
In this adaptation of Sara Gruen's popular historical novel, a 90-something man named Jacob Jakowski (Hal Holbrook) tells a contemporary circus manager (Paul Schneider) about the life-changing year he spent with the Benzini Brothers circus in 1931. After a tragedy ruins his ability to graduate from veterinary school, the desperate 23-year-old Jacob (Robert Pattinson) jumps a train that turns out to be a circus run by savvy but cruel August (Christoph Waltz), whose wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), is the circus' star attraction. Thrilled to have an educated man on board, August hires Jacob as the circus' personal vet and eventually asks him to train a newly acquired elephant, Rosie, for Marlena to ride as part of a new act. But life with the circus is often a disturbing, violent experience -- especially for a young man who's falling in love with his paranoid boss' beautiful wife.
Is it any good?
Director Francis Lawrence isn't exactly known for giving audiences warm fuzzies. His previous movies includes the demonic horror thriller Constantine and the post-apocalyptic thriller I Am Legend. With Gruen's best-selling book as his source material here, Lawrence concentrates on more domestic horrors missing in his other films. As the sadistic August, Waltz simmers with alternating charm and viciousness -- two qualities he perfected in his Oscar-winning turn in Inglourious Basterds. He rules the circus like a fierce despot who believes that his decisions are for the common good, and his performance is basically another variation of his Nazi officer (which is good because he's up to task but also disappointing, because he's such a fantastic actor, and it would be refreshing to see him play a gentler, kinder character).
But who cares about violent ringmasters when there's Pattinson to ogle? The truth is that audiences looking for a romance so steamy that it blows up the Big Top will be sadly disappointed. Sure, Witherspoon and Pattinson give each other plenty of longing gazes, but aside from their shared love of the circus animals, there's not all that much to their relationship. The flashback framing story prepares you for a Notebook or Titanic-sized love story, but Marlena and Jacob just seem thrown together by virtue of their being equally frightened by August. It's just not the sizzling affair you'd expect in such an old-fashioned love story. Holbrook, however, is completely deserving of audience admiration. His scenes are few, but the octogenarian Oscar nominee possesses a vulnerable gravitas that actors a third his age should study.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the movie's messages about relationships. What are the differences between the way August treats Marlena and the way Jacob treats her? Parents, talk to teens about your own values regarding relationships.
Which characters do you consider role models? Why?
How is the early 20th-century circus depicted? How are circuses different now?
- In theaters: April 22, 2011
- On DVD or streaming: November 1, 2011
- Cast: Christoph Waltz, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson
- Director: Francis Lawrence
- Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 120 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: moments of intense violence and sexual content
For kids who love romance
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.