Sunday 16 June 2019

Running away with the circus

The Greatest Showman  - Three Stars

Centre stage: Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum in The Greatest Showman
Centre stage: Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum in The Greatest Showman
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Bright, breezy and cheesier than a quattro formaggi pizza, The Greatest Showman looks and sounds like it's based on one of those annoyingly sunny Broadway musicals.

In fact it's an entirely original one, and I suppose all concerned ought to be congratulated for getting it made in the first place. Hugh Jackman had a lot to do with it, committing to the project as long ago as 2009 and waiting patiently while the pieces slowly fell into place. He's an accomplished song and dance man, and is well cast as PT Barnum, the legendary 19th -century American impresario who made his name with a kind of upmarket freak show, and his fortune with a travelling circus.

In this film's rather fanciful and sugary version, Barnum, a penniless street kid with a rare instinct for putting on a show, was motivated not just by ambition but by an empathic concern for the giants, dwarves and bearded ladies he hires to work in his theatre so the public can have a good gawk at them. This seems unlikely, as Barnum's original 'American Museum' was a precursor of the so-called freak shows that persisted into the 20th century and involved pretty shameful treatment and working conditions. But this is a musical, a fluffy slice of feel-good froth, and the grim realities of mid-19th century American life are pleasantly sanitised by toe-tapping, forgettable songs.

When the young Phineas Taylor Barnum is visiting the house of a rich family with his impoverished tailor dad, he falls in love with a girl called Charity, who's about to be dispatched by her class-obsessed parents to a finishing school. PT grows up, his father dies, but he never forgets Charity (Michelle Williams), and to her parents' disgust they run off together, marry and have two daughters.

Barnum is toiling as a clerk in a soulless stock company when he stares out the window at a neighbouring cemetery and realises that life is passing him by. A chance meeting with a tiny young man called Charles Stratton convinces PT that a new kind of show could gain traction with the weary and distraction-seeking working public. At that point, physically non-typical people like Charles were hidden away from the world, but Barnum reckons that punters would be prepared to pay to see these so-called freaks perform. He's right, but the road to success will not be smooth for Barnum and his American Museum, which will be attacked by drunken mobs, reviled in the bourgeois press and subjected to arson attacks.

Barnum's odyssey represents the classic American success story: he comes from nothing, makes it big, fails then rebounds spectacularly. Stirring stuff, but Michael Gracey's film doesn't handle this arc particularly well. PT's pathetic desire to be accepted by the upper echelons of Manhattan society is interesting, but only fleetingly touched on, and his story is explored at the expense of all others. Several of the film's songs speak to a human confraternity that embraces all divergence, but not one of the 'freak' performers is given a back story or a context. Several of them seem to have been marginalised merely because they have red hair: be happy, ginger people, that you live in more enlightened times.

The songs, competent but never memorable, always sound like something by someone else: there's a Rihanna one in there, an 80s dance tune, but nothing that reflects the music of Barnum's time. Rebecca Ferguson is resplendent as Swedish singing star Jenny Lund, who briefly turns Barnum's head. Michelle Williams seems bleary-eyed and distracted as his sainted wife, and appears to have accidentally wandered in off the set of some other, much less ecstatic period film. She does her own singing, Ms Ferguson does not, but Jackman cares not, and belts out his numbers with aplomb, assisted by Zac Efron, who plays his business partner, and is equally adept at the soft-shoe shuffling. This, despite its vague egalitarian pretensions, is a shallow and vacuous film, but it's also a very watchable one.


The Greatest Showman (PG, 105mins)

Irish Independent

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