The Greatest Showman review: A P.T. Barnum-inspired spectacle favours style over substance

  • The Greatest Showman (2017)

Inspired by the story of P. T. Barnum, a skilled entrepreneur and self-made showman who blew up the front pages of New York newspapers with his tricks, the first-time director Michael Gracey retells the tale of the man who deceived the crowds to their pleasure and outrage. Although it’s quite a spectacle graced by big choruses and well-known names, it’s not always as provocative as it wants to be, trading the aura of scandal for blind earnestness and, in effect, a lot of sequin-topped simplifications.

the greatest showman review

If you expect a biopic supercharged by songs, you’ve probably picked a wrong film; the skeleton of the story will be enough to draft a sugar-coated portrait of P. T. Barnum and will probably prompt you to read more about him soon. But The Greatest Showman isn’t preoccupied with the details and claims its creative license whenever possible: it’s inspired by his biography, not dedicated to recreating it, and that comes with consequences.

A whole lot of liberties are taken along the way, and you might find yourself questioning little things down the line, not necessarily related to his story. Would a tailor’s son be literate at the end of 19th century, and therefore able to exchange letters with an upper-class girl? How come the bank didn’t double-check his collateral before proceeding with the loan? Why does the greatest showman continuously strive to appeal to only one “joyless critic” in the entire New York? And how much does opera have in common with pop powerhouse ballads? It’s up to you to decide if you subscribe to it – and at the end of the day, it’s an interpretation and not a hagiographical study, so it’s much easier to turn a blind eye to unexpected inconsistencies.

Without a doubt, it’s a bold, glamourous and glitzy film, with grand choreographies set out to solid music. It’s confident it can pull off the humbug like Barnum would – with a spectator willing to commit to its self-assured, glitter-sprinkled nonsense, it can be a grand success. And that somewhat captures the public image of the man who tricked people into believing his fabrications without dwelling on his darker deeds: it’s an unapologetic success story, but one that refuses to sell you interesting character progression either.

Considering that the film tries to talk about the controversies that self-expression can bring, it’s quite sterile and unchallenging at tackling them. It plants a couple of ideas in the story – it talks about unity regardless of one’s background or appearance, breaking the rules or brightening people’s lives with art and optimism in the face of outrage – but it’s never provocative enough (Moulin Rouge comes to mind here as an opposite) to make us consider them outside of an average human being’s moral compass. It gets even more muddled in the light of the era the events are set in: the times surely weren’t mature enough to accept some of the ideas we don’t find shocking anymore, but the movie struggles to communicate that, happily ignoring the traits of the entire time period that could easily amplify it.

Following the happy-go-lucky leading man, so much purity and virtue present itself in this fictional world that you’d actually believe some people pay the bills with happiness. Unfortunately, it allows some of the characters, such as Barnum’s wife Charity or the entire circus troupe, to drip with saccharine because of missing character traits; when a meek journalist becomes the face of the snobbish upper class, you know that even the classic “bad versus evil” theme was underutilised.

The cast are finding their feet easily in this musical: Hugh Jackman has an insane flair for musical theatre and a lot of experience in it, so he knows exactly what to do to create his protagonist, even if it’s hardly an original one. Michelle Williams as his wife is utterly charming too, even if she certainly deserved a more complex heroine. Zac Efron and Zendaya also get fun parts, possibly the most exciting ones in the entire film. One of the most interestingly written personas is that of Jenni Lind, played by Rebecca Ferguson: she searches for something she could never obtain, cons the upper-class world with the understanding of it she gained on her way to fame, and allows her imagination to run wild only to deepen her own suffering in the end. She also feels the most human of them all: she’s not perfect, but her reactions are the most natural.

It’d help if the pacing of the film wasn’t so uneven either: the film starts off quite slowly, then speeds up to cram as many events as possible into the plot. Because Barnum’s problems seem really minor in the streak of his countless successes, the storyline feels fairly flat, too. And both of these concerns result in the ending that bursts like a bubble: when a lot of complications ensue, they’re cheerfully swept under the carpet or magically solved, and never spoken of again.

The film boasts an original soundtrack from the award-winning Paul-Pasek duo: from the very first minutes and The Greatest Show, we know it’s dedicated to entertaining with powerful, grand, modern-sounding pop tunes. Never Enough is a true heartbreaker, and This Is Me becomes a triumphant, inspirational anthem of embracing one’s flaws. Rewrite the Stars, and particularly the choreography from Zendaya and Efron that’s paired with the number, also provides for one of the best moments of the film.

Consequently, The Greatest Showman experience largely depends on your personal perception. If you’re willing to tag along and be tricked by its grandeur and confidence, never expecting anything beyond the commercial musical, it’ll turn out to be truly innocent fun. If you’re ready to challenge its reality, it might not be for you – but as Charity Barnum said, “You don’t need the whole world to love you,” and this film doesn’t care in the slightest about what you think of it.

The Greatest Showman opens in the UK on the 26th of December 2017.

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being. Liked my work? Buy me a coffee!

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