Of all the ‘human curiosities’ showcased in his famed New York circus, none was more beguiling and intriguing than P. T. Barnum himself. Born into a life of grinding poverty, the legendary showman fought his way from homeless hoaxster to wealthy founder of one of the most audacious variety shows the world had ever seen.
If The Greatest Showman struggles to capture the complexities of such a man, who supported the abolition of slavery yet sought to profit from the humiliation of those on the fringes of society, it undoubtedly succeeds in dazzling with a Barnum-style sense of joyous spectacle – delivering soaring musical numbers and a virtuoso performance from a full-blooded Hugh Jackman.
After a swift introduction to our subject in his pomp, we race back to Barnum’s childhood as a penniless dreamer who nevertheless manages to woo local rich-girl Charity (Michelle Williams) with promises of a remarkable life. Yet the next 25 years bring nothing but dead-end jobs and missed opportunities, until Barnum spots the chance to con his way into a bank loan and buys a failing waxwork museum.
He promptly fills the crumbling building with a collection of unique individuals – including a bearded lady, the diminutive Tom Thumb and the world’s fattest man – to great financial success. But when his popularity still fails to grant him a seat among American high society, Barnum gambles everything he has – including his marriage – to embark on a high-class tour of the country’s opera houses with beguiling Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).
The film breezes through its plot in under two hours, so its hardly a shock that there’s no time for a more nuanced look at Barnum’s success and the troubled lives of his circus attractions. Instead we’re served a hackneyed rags-to-riches journey filled with mawkish themes of family and inclusivity as Barnum, blinded by his success, forgets what’s truly important – an undemanding arc where the dramatic beats are so clearly telegraphed you’ll barely need to pay attention to the story.
That turns out to be no bad thing as you’ll be so transfixed by the spectacular set-pieces on show that you won’t be able to focus on anything else. The film delivers a succession of foot-stompingly catchy songs (the soaring This is me is a highlight, swelling with emotion and a pop-tinged chorus that invites you to sing along) written by La La Land’s Pasek and Paul, which first-time director Michael Gracey deftly choreographs with splashes of lavish colour and glitzy flourishes. And at the centre of it all is an effervescent Jackman as the unshakable Barnum – a whirlwind of burning ambition, brash charisma and twinkling charm who commands attention in every scene.
Like the outlandish carnival of entertainment from which it drew inspiration, The Greatest Showman is unlikely to garner much warmth from critics thanks to its reliance on hoary cliches and underwhelming plot. Yet, for the rest of us, there’s something undoubtedly charming and really quite moving about a film where everyone involved pours their heart and soul into welcoming the masses and sending them home with a big smile across their faces. Mr Barnum would be proud.
Runtime: 105 mins (approx.)
Director: Michael Gracey
Screenwriters: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zac Efron