Water for Elephants is a drama set in the time of the great depression. There are four main characters in this story. Jacob, played by Robert Patterson, is a young man who has dropped out of Cornell where he had been studying to become a veterinarian like his deceased father. Through a series of small events, Jacob finds himself on board a circus train heading to parts unknown. The circus's owner, August, played by Christoph Waltz has a beautiful wife, Marlena, who is also the star performer in the troop. Marlena is played by Reese Witherspoon.
August turns out to be a strong willed individual who at first, takes a shine to Jacob. He likes that Jacob has a formal education because he considers himself to be a well educated man who enjoys the finer things in life. August employs a number of show people and handymen who live live on the train and travel in separate box cars with the handymen riding in the poorest section of the train and receiving the skimpiest amount of rations. Jacob decides to ride with these people. He also takes on the position of animal doctor for the circus after treating Marlena's show horse.
As the story progresses, the true nature of August as a ruthless man, who will do anything to gain the reputation of having the best circus, comes out. A personal struggle between Jacob and August begins to unfold which includes elements of suspense as a romance develops between Marlena and Jacob.
Rosie, another central character, is a trained elephant August acquired in the hopes of creating a new star attraction for his circus. When the elephant does not respond to any of his commands he takes to beating her severely. August's brutality is not limited to the way he trains his animals, he also beats on his wife and has little regard for the safety or lives of his employees. He is known for having his bouncers toss unruly workers from a moving train.
Jacob discovers the Rosie was trained by a Polish trainer and only responds to commands given in Polish. Because Jacob is Polish he is able to communicate with Rosie so she responds to his commands. There are also elements of romance and suspense woven into the storyline of this movie.