The Greatest Showman

Jacob Richardson | 30/12/2017

There’s an undercurrent of cynicism, primarily driven by the treatment of the secondary characters in this musical biopic, but despite it’s subject matters whitewashing of the real man’s more controversial aspects, The Greatest Showman will likely put a smile on your face.

Loosely following the life of renowned showman P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Charity (Michelle Williams), as they struggle to get not only their own unique show off the ground, but also to gain respectability for their family amongst the high-flying elites of New York, The Greatest Showman chronicles the beginning of the circus as we know it.


It’s an interesting journey as a film-goer experiencing this hark back to the great musicals of old, because director Michael Gracey takes great pains to destroy any illusion of reality. Whether it is impossible acrobatics or the incredible but off-kilter, over-saturated set design, Gracey creates a world that, as viewer, we can recognise as fake. To be honest, it’s probably necessary. While we struggle to suspend our disbelief, it also enables us to be able to believe in Hugh Jackman’s loveable portrayal of P.T. Barnum.


Indeed, it is in this portrayal that the film finds it’s biggest flaws. In real life, Barnum was an abuser of power, doing anything to make a quick buck no matter who he hurt. In The Greatest Showman, he comes across as the bastion of all things good that Hugh Jackman is. It services the plot well, but the shades of dark and darker that should have coloured a realistic interpretation of this character are nowhere to be seen, and in many respects it leaves a sore taste in your mouth. Scenes where Barnum convinces unique persons to join his circus feel particularly manipulative, and this is only underscored by his eventual abandonment of them.


The Greatest Showman also happens to be Michael Gracey’s directorial debut, and it shows. Certain key moments are wrung for every bit of emotionality possible, in a somewhat ham-fisted way, and the film’s big final number (From Now On) is staged in a bar; making it’s spectacle somewhat limited. On the other hand, he brings a vivacity to some of the ensemble scenes that is truly beautiful.


Indeed, that is where this film does succeed; in it’s exploration of spectacle not as avarice but as virtue. Barnum (or at least this version of Barnum) is the perfect character to deliver such an exploration. He can’t help but ratchet up the intensity of each performance, and Hugh Jackman does a wonderful job of infusing him with the charisma, charm and presence necessary to create these iconic performances.


At the end of the day, despite the qualms, the film is undeniably, unabashedly fun. It’s entertainment for entertainment’s sake, designed to make you happy rather than make any meaningful impact on our thought process or lives after the screening. And with songs this catchy, impressive performances from Zendaya, Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman, and a visual feast of colour, it succeeds at this in spades.


The Greatest Showman always feels like it has an undercurrent of cynicism, buoyed by the reputation of it’s real life inspiration, but aside from this Hugh Jackman pulls off an entertaining musical that, while not surprising you in any way, shape or form, will leave you with a smile on your face and a bounce in your step.