Frances Winston reviews this biopic of PT Barnum, and finds some great performances and cinematography, but feels it is lacking in character development
Directed by: Michael Gracey – Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya
PT Barnum was a colourful, fascinating, and not always likeable character. We know this as his life is so well-documented, including in a biography written by himself. Search for his name, and any number of fascinating stories will appear.
Unfortunately director, Gracey, decides not to focus on any of them, and instead this musical biopic is loosely based on Barnum’s life. Very loosely. It’s looser than the loosest cannon. Suffice to say that you won’t be choosing Barnum as your specialist subject on Mastermind after watching this.
For starters, Barnum was in his 60s before he started his famous circus. Hugh Jackman isn’t. However, Hugh has some serious musical theatre chops, and he attacks this role with gusto and verve, and gives a fantastic portrayal of the legendary showman. He is backed by a great cast, who all really seem to be enjoying themselves.
However, again, there is a lot of dramatic licence taken with these characters – ages are changed (significantly), timelines are altered, life-events are fabricated, and two of them are completely fictitious. While fictitious characters are not unusual in biopics, they are usually an amalgamation of a few lesser real-life characters.
However, here Efron and Zendaya are thrown into the mix it would seem solely to make a statement about the race-relations of the era, thanks to their forbidden attraction to each other. This is a shame as it pulls focus from some of the other characters, yet many of their real-life counterparts had hugely fascinating lives.
Character development is a huge problem in this movie. I wouldn’t usually encourage a longer running time, but here it would have ensured a bit more breathing space. Thankfully, The Greatest Showman is saved somewhat by some magnificent cinematography. From the very opening sequence, which sees Jackman perform The Greatest Show with most of the rest of the cast, you know that this is definitely going to be visually spectacular.
Gracey has clearly been heavily influenced by Baz Lurhman, and there are some shots that could have been taken directly from the likes of Moulin Rouge. While this makes for some beautiful shots, it means that the comparisons will be inevitable, and at times this felt a bit unoriginal.
What are definitely original are the songs. Seemingly, the fact that the studio was anxious about making a musical, featuring entirely new songs, is what has kept The Greatest Showman in production hell for 7 years. However, the success of La La Land meant that faith was restored in the idea, and the songs were worth the wait. Every single one is instantly catchy and anthemic. It helps of course that they are beautifully choreographed and shot. The musical numbers really help maintain the energy of this movie.
The Greatest Showman is a flashy romp that will have you tapping your feet and singing along. And it does entertain, but on a rather one-dimensional level. Unfortunately – much like the real PT Barnum’s marketing model – there is a lot of razzle-dazzle, but very little substance. It is totally feel-good, and perfect for the holiday season, when you’ve possibly overindulged and are feeling sluggish, and it will leave you with a smile on your face. But scratch the surface, and The Greatest Showman is lacking in story and character development.
If you enjoy pure spectacle, you’ll love this, but if you want a really interesting story, read a biography of the real Barnum afterwards, because fact really is stranger than fiction.
In Cinemas December 26th! Trailer Below: