A film so boldly entitled The Greatest Showman seems sure to either whisk you away on a magical journey, or be simply too good to be true. After hearing rave reviews of this ‘biopic’ (great artistic licence was taken) about the life of showman PT Barnham (Hugh Jackman), I had great hopes of it being the former.
The film begins with promise, opening with Barnham dressed in his ringmaster attire, in position in the shadows, singing mysteriously low. You know something big is about to happen. The scene suddenly brightens, and he suavely leads us around his glittering circus, complete with lions jumping through flaming hoops. Alas, starting on such a spectacular high sets the film up for an anti-climax as the plot unfurls.
As the lights lower and Barnham’s cheering audience begin to disappear, we are transported back to when he was the young son of a tailor, in love with an unattainable upper-class girl. This is where the film loses some of its sparkle. His love interest, the blonde and beautiful Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams), becomes the stereotypical steady wife of a man caught up in his hare-brained schemes, but so infatuated that she is content living in a leaky shack. Of course, this lifestyle isn’t enough for her ambitious husband who climbs the social ladder after his circus’ sudden rise to fame, though she doesn’t complain when he surprises her with a shiny new mansion.
This rags to riches concept is so classic that it seems off to disparage it by default, yet for a film which advocates the celebration of outsiders, it seems wrong to focus so greatly on the white man ruthlessly achieving the American Dream. However, there is some depth in the questionable morality of Barnham who, at first, callously pursues wealth by using his ‘living exhibitions’, including Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), a bearded lady, as the subjects of ridicule.
The stories of these ‘freaks’ are glossed over until Lutz leads their spectacular sung diatribe against their unaccepting society. The award-winning song ‘This is Me’ is the film’s turning point, transforming it from one long, shallow pop video to an emotive tale of self-acceptance. The moment Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) defiantly belts “This is me!” towards Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) is the powerful moment I had been waiting for. Their forbidden interracial love is portrayed beautifully, with Efron – taking a break from striving to shake off his High School Musical days – reigniting the hearts of those who love him in musical roles.
Styled less as timeless musical numbers, and more like chart music, many of the other songs lack wow-factor, feeling manufactured and unremarkable. However, this surreal juxtaposition of tuneful modern music against the 19th century backdrop is a refreshing perspective, which will perhaps appeal to those who aren’t stalwart musical fans.
The Greatest Showman is an upbeat remedy for the January Blues, accompanied by enchanting costumes and dance routines. Still, the musical traditionalists may find themselves YouTubing the Les Misérables soundtrack afterwards, for some more authentic singalong belters.
Film reviewed at Cineworld, Edinburgh.
Image: Twentieth Century Fox