THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (USA/PG/109mins)
Directed by Michael Gracey. Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Zac Efron.
THE PLOT: Based on the life of circus creator P.T Barnum (Hugh Jackman), ‘The Greatest Showman’ is the story of how Barnum went from being laid off from yet another job, to finding a way to make his dreams come true and create an American institution.
THE VERDICT: A passion project for Hugh Jackman, ‘The Greatest Showman’ is not the first film or musical to focus on P.T. Barnum, but although the film brings in the lyricists from La La Land, is shot by Seamus McGarvey and boasts an impressive cast, there is very little under the shiny surface to draw audiences in.
The cast features Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zendaya, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, Paul Sparks and Keala Settle, and each of them bring something to the film, but some of them – particularly Michelle Williams – feel as though they are miscast in this bright and shiny film. It is clear that Hugh Jackman is having the time of his life dancing and singing his way through this shiny and superficial film, but he feels as though he is not quite right for the role, and is certainly too old. Michelle Williams feels as though she is a distraction to the film and draws focus, as does Rebecca Ferguson, who is usually a joy to watch on screen. Zac Efron, Zendaya and Keala Settle are well cast in their roles and bring a sparkle to the film, but this is scattered to thinly throughout the film.
Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s screenplay is utterly superficial; the first act feels as though it is setting up something that could be truly special, but this quickly dissolves in the face of forced drama and emotional payoffs given to characters that have not earned them. As well as this, the romantic relationships between the characters seem to just appear, with no development or build up at all; in fact, this is a complaint that could be levied at the entire film, which is paced so quickly as to not allow any character development at all. Elsewhere, the film makes a big deal about celebrating those who are different, but utterly sidelines the so-called freaks in the story, only giving them the briefest of moments for their denouement before moving on. This, coupled with the fact that the film is so clearly ignoring the less pretty aspects of P.T Barnum’s life story make ‘The Greatest Showman’ feel as though it is skimming the admittedly pretty surface.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s deliberately anachronistic songs feel as though they were rejected by big music stars – although Kesha’s cover of ‘This is Me’ is admittedly great – and are utterly forgettable. In fact the songs feel as though they are a cynical distraction and a cheap way of inserting emotion into a film that is devoid of heart. The dancing and performance is exhilarating, however, and it is clear that Zendaya is having fun in her spectacular trapeze routine.
As director, first timer Michael Gracey seems to have truly struggled with what little story there is. The songs work fine, the deliberately anachronistic style allows the songs to work almost as self contained music videos, but when characters need time to develop and change, the film is already moving on. This means that characters who need emotional redemption never get it, and the conflict seems to come out of nowhere.
In all, ‘The Greatest Showman’ could have been a stirring, exhilarating and charming musical about allowing the strange to shine, and treating everyone with respect while making something beautiful, but instead it is a big shiny nothing. There are some lovely moments throughout the film, but the whole affair feels like one of P.T Barnum’s famous hoaxes; showy and bright, but ultimately false and unsatisfying.
RATING: 2/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    ‘The noblest art is that of making others happy’ once said American businessman Phineas Taylor Barnum. This quote appears at the end of The Greatest Showman, a musical inspired by the life of the man himself. Making others happy is fine… but shouldn’t there be more to it – and the film itself?

    Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is something of a dreamer, a shrewd businessman who wants to live the American dream. He also wants a better life for his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and their two young daughters in New York. Having lost his dull office job, he buys a museum of stuffed curiosities. He later decides to bring more life to it by seeking out unusual people with a talent beyond their curiosity factor, including trapeze artist Anne (Zendaya), actor Philip (Zac Efron) and bearded lady Lottie (Keala Settle). His show becomes more of a circus act, drawing crowds back again and again, despite scorn being poured on him by the press. A chance for legitimacy presents itself in the shapely form of Swedish opera singer Jenny (Rebecca Ferguson), whom Barnum promotes in America. But as he juggles many responsibilities, can he keep them all in the air?

    The Greatest Showman is a passion project for Jackman. Being a natural showman himself, most memorably presenting the Academy Awards in 2009, it’s a story that is tailor-made for his many talents. Together with debut director Michael Gracey, they’ve created a musical with a quaint, old-time feel but jazzed up with 21st Century songs. Anachronistic yes, but it kinda works. There may be a sense of nostalgia attached to the film in future years, as Barnum’s circus shuttered its tent for the last time earlier this year due to falling attendances and pressure from animal rights groups. For now, it’s a film that doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is – a joyous celebration of being different and why that’s something to be applauded. A very modern conceit in a 19th Century world, but it’s passable enough for this film.

    Thankfully, Gracey doesn’t try to pass Barnum off as a saint or a saviour for the downtrodden and different. He’s more of an opportunist who (mostly) respects his cast and crew while living off them to some degree. While that slight move towards painting Barnum as a flawed character is welcome, the film needs a bit more to flesh him out as a historical character of fame or infamy, depending on your point of view. Despite dependable work from Jackman, the role doesn’t stretch him and Barnum is a character who remains frustratingly out of reach for the duration. A potentially romantic sub-plot involving Jenny feels shoehorned in and becomes an unnecessary distraction. In a sense, Barnum wants to be like everyone else. Wasn’t the whole idea about him being different? Anyway, the songs are decent enough and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography captures the look and feel of the era well. The last film of 2017 doesn’t quite go out with a bang, but it doesn’t go out with a whimper either. A decent if unremarkable effort. ***