There will inevitably be those weeping into their Sara Gruen novel of the same name after writer Richard LaGravenese’s film adaptation – even though the author swears nothing in the screen version diminishes her best-selling tale. And on the whole, Gruen is right.

Water For Elephants recreates the story’s magical, old-fashioned love affair full of colour, beauty, honour and courage that sweeps you up on a journey of optimism and peril, within the fascinating microcosm of a 1930s circus troupe. LaGravenese’s vision indeed stays faithful to the feel of the 2006 book, even if chunks of the latter have been hacked to bring 14 hours reading time down to nearly two, and some characters have been altered.

It’s a tale of forbidden love: Jake Jankowski (Hal Holbrook), a 93-year-old former circus worker and ex-veterinary student recalls his days at the struggling Benzini Brothers Circus in 1930s’, Depression-era America. A young Jake (Robert Pattinson) falls in love with the circus’s star performer, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who happens to be married to the tyrannical and emotionally unstable owner, August (Christoph Waltz), a man who charms one minute and is abusive the next. August thinks he can turn the troupe’s fortunes around after purchasing an elephant called Rosie (played by Tai the elephant). But as Jake and Marlena bond over Rosie’s training and concern over her cruel treatment at the hands of August, they cannot deny their own feelings towards each other, and realise the only way to be free is to run away from the circus, and out of August’s clutches.

For many fans of the book, LaGravenese’s first ‘error’ would be combining the characters of August, who is the head trainer in the book, and the novel’s violent owner, Uncle Al. In fact because the casting of Waltz is absolutely spot on, the film character of August is temperamental, menacing and sadistic enough to comfortably merge the two personalities, and deliver all their nuances – as you’d expect from the brilliant Oscar-winning star of Inglourious Basterds. Waltz triumphs once more, and along with his much larger co-star, Tai, lifts the story off the page, and evokes all the emotion across its spectrum. Yes, the elephant really charms the living daylights out of you in this – even with some CG trickery for some of the abuse scenes. But the stunt moments, where Witherspoon lithely performs with an equally graceful Tai, fully capture the imagination and vibe of a bygone era.

In fact, Pattinson and Witherspoon merely provide the visual beauty and knowing looks, especially the latter, Witherspoon, who seems to capture that timeless, big-screen glamour and intoxicating mixture of fragility and toughness. As a couple in love, the actors’ 11-year age gap does little to distract credibility in their screen union, particularly as Marlena is portrayed as more worldly-wise. Pattinson shows the first signs of leading-man allure from a cinematic era past that, as is the case here, often made allowances for some more wooden acting moments. Indeed, Twilight fans can be guaranteed to get the Edward Cullen swoons again for the very first time after watching him as Jake, who comes up against all odds in the name of love – an act made for Pattinson. It’s grand-hearted, sigh-a-minute Mills and Boon/Jackie Collins-time, but Pattinson does need to lessen the shy schoolboy grins, though, which conflict with his more impressive, serious stand-offs opposite Waltz in this. He still has to shake off the teen-heartthrob angst performance, but is getting there.

As magical love stories go, LaGravenese’s period film is an enchanting watch – part in thanks to the exquisite art direction and cinematography – that stands more than adequately as a standalone film for those who have not read the book. In fact, although set in the 1930s, much like the eternal appeal and romance of Twilight’s vampire existence, Water For Elephants combines nods to a golden screen era, but with all the contemporary relationship gusto of falling for the wrong person. And it keeps things from getting too schmaltzy by keeping proceedings dark and unnerving, thanks to Waltz and the moody and threatening set ambiance. The film shamelessly plays to our love affair with animals, with Tai melting as many hearts as Pattinson in this, that seems to lessen any preconceived ‘violation’ of Gruen’s engrossing original text.