Based on a novel of the same name by Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants” is a majestically mounted period picture.

Set in a superlatively depicted depression era Circus, the film aspires to operate as a swooning romance, but genuinely finds grander successes in other areas. Lavishly directed by Francis Lawrence the production offers an immersive tapestry of visual splendour, which goes a long way to compensating for some of its more typically Pattinson-esque flaws.

Following the untimely death of his parents, aspiring veterinarian Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) decides to abandon his day to day life, opting to jump on the next train out of town. He ends up on a carriage owned by the Benzini Brothers Circus, a group of performers led by the tyrannical August (Christoph Waltz). When August becomes aware of Jacob’s college education, he appoints the young man as the Circus’s official vet, insisting that he apply special attention toward training and caring for the show’s latest acquisition, a gorgeous elephant named Rosie. Jacob quickly bonds with his feral patients and other members of the Benzini troupe, especially August’s beautiful wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). As Marlena and Jacob begin connecting romantically, the psychotic August starts to notice, placing everyone in his reach, including a tranquil Rosie, at risk.

With “Water for Elephants” Francis Lawrence continues to display a great directorial eye, even if some of his storytelling sensibilities could benefit from finer tuning. Lawrence does a terrific job of concocting a sense of time and place, creating a truly regal big top atmosphere for the tale to unfold in. The cinematography glows, instilling the film with a surface level beauty and elegance that can’t be disputed. Similarly the production design is richly rewarding, “Water for Elephants” boasting some meticulously sculpted sets and tastefully designed backdrops. These are the same skills that Lawrence confirmed during his previous two stabs at cinematic glory (“I Am Legend” and “Constantine”), building up a believable and well formed world for his actors to inhabit.

Pattinson is predictably stiff, but he at least brings a little warmth to his performance, something the “Twilight” star has failed to do in the past. His onscreen dynamic with Witherspoon feels considerably more forced than it should, but when sharing the screen with Waltz and some of the more impressive animal specimens he just about manages to convey a sense of humanity. Witherspoon is just as much to blame for the floundering chemistry; the actress doesn’t look overly absorbed in the part, moving through the script adequately but passionlessly. On the other hand Waltz is a total delight, bringing yet another inherently evil charmer out with his domineering interpretation of August. Waltz is the movie’s most potent driving force, finding a dark energy in places that most thespians wouldn’t think to look. It’s a spellbinding turn, comprised largely of brutal and tormented components.

At 120 minutes “Water for Elephants” is perhaps somewhat bloated, Lawrence letting the feature linger on for longer than it should. For the filmmaker the plot marks a distinct change of pace, his previous efforts having been outright sci-fi chillers. Lawrence shows decent command of the picture’s narrative, combing the core romance succinctly with the other often more compelling subplots. The love triangle is inconsistent because of the unconvincing link between Pattinson and Witherspoon, but Lawrence actually builds this fundamental part of the picture up rather solidly, disappointed ultimately only by his casting. “Water for Elephants” is also an interesting study of power, the screenplay concentrating with particular verve on August’s abuse of his employees, animals and even wife. I’m not sure if this element shines simply due to Waltz’s sublime contribution, but it’s undeniably the most complex and disturbing arc “Water for Elephants” has at its disposal.

Of course Rosie the elephant is lovely, a practical beast having obviously been preferred on set instead of a soulless CGI counterpart. “Water for Elephants” is a flawed picture, but its aesthetical magic and other dollops of greatness (honestly, it’s all about Waltz) just about carry it to the finish line. A cute finale rounds out the adaptation sturdily, leaving me with no other option than to moderately recommend this sporadically enchanting creation. It’s the first R-Patz bonanza I can get thoroughly behind, although in a classic case of irony, my fondness for this picture has nothing to do with its handsome but relentlessly wooden leading man.