It is set under the Big Top of Benzini Bros' colourful travelling circus in pre-Depression 1931 America, where its charismatic founder August (Christoph Waltz) struggles to balance the books. His orphaned pert, plucky wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) is his 'star attraction', the show- stopping headliner and key revenue stream.
His beautiful wife owes everything to him, and appears content to put up with unpredictable outbursts of sadistic violence, but this is not all August is capable of. As the steam train rattles through the night to the next town, August's sinister cost-cutting enforcers prowl the train, targeting superfluous employees to throw off.
Running away from personal tragedy, after the loss of his parents in an automobile accident results in financial destitution, and the abandonment of his final year of vetinerary studies at Cornell University, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) boards the circus train. His skilful negotiation of carriage thuggery, a treacherous, mercurial boss, and cages full of wild animals, using his indispensable veterinary skills, is a compelling narrative thread.
His attraction to Marlena glitters in Witherspoon's sequins, and August's watchful eyes. However, the real, sinuous chemistry which is a joy to watch is not between the forbidden lovers, but Pattinson's tangible affection for and protection of a new arrival, Rosie the elephant. Both Jacob's loves are targets of August's violence.
Unlikely menages a trois then abound: Jacob, Marlena and August (dared on by the latter); Jacob, Marlena and Rosie (she rides both eventually), and Jacob, his white faced, knife-carrying dwarf carriage and a jack russell.
The film is full of absurdities: 'Bring Rosie to my tent, but don't tell anyone', Marlena tells Jacob, or August calling Marlena (a silk-gowned vision) a 'common type' but such is the beauty of the production, they are quickly forgotten. The hardest thing to believe is that on the strength of the batsqueak of sexual attraction between Pattinson and Witherspoon - in sex scenes they look quite uncomfortable - that the story ends with a lifelong union between them, attested to by a reminiscing, rheumy-eyed Hal Holbrook as aged Jacob. However, a recent TV chat show reminded Witherspoon and Pattinson that in a previous production, they had played mother and son.
All the leads are watchable, and the open-mouthed delight of the crowds at the circus' arrival, setting up and performance will be shared by many viewers. It's good to see Robert Pattinson with some colour in his cheeks.