In true Barnum spirit, director Michael Gracey’s dazzling musical The Greatest Showman embraces his subject’s famous proclivity for massaging the truth. The man who once paraded elderly ex-slave Joice Heth around as the 161-year-old nursemaid of George Washington is reimagined as an ambitious but good-hearted hunk in the towering form of Hugh Jackman. His Barnum is a cheeky go-getter: hoodwinking banks, putting stilts on his giant, and padding the suit of his 500 – or was it 750? – pound man with a twinkle in his eye.
Hungrily pursuing the American Dream (for his family, the film keenly highlights), Barnum collects a roster of “freaks” with a view to putting on the Greatest Show on Earth – and he delivers. The dancing, songs, and spectacle are uniformly superb, reminding audiences why movie musicals – especially when performed by bonafide talent like Jackman, Zac Efron and Broadway’s Keala Settle – can be pure magic.
Showman’s main pitfall lies between the songs, when that magic wears off, and the creeping suspicion that Barnum is still pulling the wool over your eyes begins to set in. For all its talk of giving the spotlight to society’s rejects, the film doesn’t seem especially interested in doing so if they aren’t singing rousing numbers about found family and self-acceptance. The decision to overlook the real-life people instrumental in Barnum’s success unhappily echoes an in-film scene in which he shuts them out of a society party. Despite the film’s earnest declarations, it fails to practice what it preaches.
Embracing Barnum’s hokum, The Greatest Showman is a fairytale. Dazzling musical set-pieces and irresistible songs allow Jackman to deliver the showstopping performance he’s been dying to for years. Enjoy the pure escapist fantasy – just don’t think too hard about the man behind the humbug.
CAST: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Keala Settle, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Michelle Williams
DIRECTOR: Michael Gracey
WRITERS: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon (screenplay), Jenny Bicks (story)
SYNOPSIS: Down on his luck after losing his humdrum job, the redoubtable and ever-ambitious P.T. Barnum rises from lowly beginnings to create the Greatest Show on Earth. Collecting a colourful crew of extraordinary performers, Barnum’s show promises to take the world by storm – but at what cost?