Hugh Jackman IS The Greatest Showman, it cannot be denied. His voice, charisma and screen presence are inarguably mesmeric. And powerful enough to make even the most despicable character palatable. Which is handy. P.T. Barnum was a truly terrible man. A profiteer of the misfortunes of others and a cynical exploiter of the disabled. Yes, he lived in different times. Yet even by the standards of his time, to sell tickets to the autopsy of a profoundly handicapped woman one owned seems…distasteful.
Barnum is a curious, if not downright bad, choice of inspiration for a musical biopic so buoyantly determined to remain upbeat. But by the power of Hugh Jackman, a stonking soundtrack and an unhealthy dose of denial The Greatest Showman nearly grifts its way past our disapproval without a scratch. The curtain lifts on a classic upstairs/downstairs love story: a tailor’s boy falling for the master’s daughter. And she falling just as hard for him in return. Over the course of one song the sweethearts are painfully torn apart and reunited again when the boy returns a successful man, to claim his bride’s hand and fulfill his promise to give her the world.
Unfortunately for Charity Barnum (Michelle Williams) P.T is every bit the showman in his personal life too and struggles a little harder to make his elaborate word pictures manifest themselves in reality. Nevertheless, the duo soon become a foursome and the Barnum’s two daughters grow to love their daddy’s tall tales even as their mother quietly longs for an income and a man on whom she can rely. When P.T and the working world go their separate ways an unexpected investment in property promises to change the family’s fortunes forever. The Barnums are going into showbiz of the most unusual kind: they’re off to found a circus!
So far so good-hearted. The Greatest Showman has established itself as an uplifting crowd-pleaser. And even as Barnum begins to recruit unique performers for his spectacle the feel good factor lingers. It is almost possible not to snort when Barnum declares that everyone is special. Such is the force of Mr Jackman’s charm. In fact it is hard to pinpoint exactly when it begins to dissipate and the voice of reason to creep in but from the outset there is something incredibly unsettling about the clean clothes, smiling faces and diluted freakiness of P.T’s freaks. They reek of saviour story.
Even Queen Victoria takes to General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), the featured performer we are led to believe inspired Barnum on his entertainment journey. Grumpy Tom is written to be enjoyed as light relief but screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon had to excise quite a lot of truth to achieve that goal. Not least that Barnum had added Charles to his touring freak show at the age of 5 and exploited him for the duration of his life, even selling tickets to his wedding. Perhaps the song about that was lost in the final edit. Like the song stating that Joice Heth ever lived at all.
The musical numbers are simply sensational. Undeniably so. The addition of Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) to the ensemble unites the performers into something akin to family and Settle’s magnificent voice raises goosebumps and smiles in equal measure. And by the time the endearingly (and improbably) wholesome Zac Efron unites his voice in song with Zendaya the temptation to sod having a social conscience and just enjoy the pretty film is strong. But increasingly the saviour story rankles and when Lettie and her co-performers are finally shown Barnum’s true priorities the desire to see them overthrow their slave master and run for the hills is stronger still.
Michael Gracey’s naivete in believing he could tell an infamous story without even a hat tip to the truth is, in the end, to The Greatest Showman’s detriment. His film is like Moulin Rouge projected in a hall of mirrors. Beautiful, dazzling, distorted. One genuine acknowledgement of the imbalance in power, a few frames of backstory to lend authentic life to the ‘freaks’ used as set dressing and punchline – even some side eye to camera to let us know that he knows that all this is not okay – would have done the trick. Instead he squanders screen time on Barnum’s infatuation with Jenny Lind and his daughter’s terrible suffering at the hands of ballet class mean girls.
The Greatest Showman is a no brainer as a choice for festive entertainment this holiday season. It is a remarkable spectacle, with captivating song and dance numbers and an unforgettable return to his musical roots from its talented lead. But perhaps we should engage our brains and make a better choice. Or at least do the true performers of Barnum’s circusses the courtesy of learning the facts the writers chose to leave unspoken. We award this film four stars because it is a fabulous musical but add to that a stinging slap on the wrist because it ought to have been something more.
The Greatest Showman opens on Boxing Day