The Greatest Showman review: Hugh Jackman’s musical biopic falls flat
2017 saw Hugh Jackman say goodbye to Wolverine in Logan, one of the best studio films of the year and one of his finest performances. Other than the X-Men character, the Aussie superstar is also known for his love of musicals, having come from a stage background and played the lead in the big screen Les Miserables.
He returns to that passion for his new film, a biopic that recently premiered on a cruise ship (as you do).
Jackman plays entrepreneur P. T. Barnum, a man living in the 1800s with nothing to his name but dreams of a better life. Supported by his devoted wife Charity (Michelle Williams), he takes out a loan and creates what is now known as a circus show, putting people society views as outsiders or freaks into the spotlight. Just as he begins to enjoy success, however, outside prejudice and his own ambition threaten to ruin everything.
Full of colour, music and optimism, it’s safe to say this biopic will find a lot of fans in those looking for spectacle alone. There’s no real edge, no obstacle that can’t be resolved with a big musical number, and that is admittedly charming.
It’s also what makes it feel so superficial.
Huge liberties are taken with Barnum’s story, mostly with his motives for starting a circus in the first place. The film frames him as a kind of philanthropist – taking bearded ladies or conjoined twins and giving them a place where they aren’t mocked, but celebrated.
It’s a lovely way of looking at it, but this kind of airbrushed perception of a very murky industry feels at best naïve, at worst ignorant. Sanitising history can often be worse than confronting it.
If the facts aren’t that important to you, the film’s beautiful visuals will be a pretty distraction. The extravagant sets seem larger than life, and when combined with the exuberance of the cast make it seem like a Broadway musical with a bigger budget.
For his part, Jackman puts his everything into the lead, as he does with every film he makes. Williams is underused as his wife, there mainly to smile and be impossibly patient as he risks their fortunes on a new scheme.
Likewise, Rebecca Ferguson’s role as singing sensation Jenny Lind seems to be to look at Jackman adoringly.
Elsewhere, Zac Efron fits like a glove as Phillip Carlyle, Barnum’s sceptical junior partner. He gets the most pleasing musical number in a bar with Jackman, while his subplot involving his feelings for the circus’ trapeze artist (Spider-Man actress Zendaya) is the closest the film gets to gritty.
It feels incredibly mean to criticise a film that’s so willing to please, but The Greatest Showman just doesn’t have it where it counts.
In the hands of someone like Baz Luhrmann this could have been a very special event.
Without that kind of vision, however, this is simply a diverting side show.
The Greatest Showman is out in the UK on December 26.
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