January 2018 (Released December 2017)
The Greatest Showman is, for me, easily a new classic. A tale of overcoming obstacles even when they seem insurmountable, pushing past prejudice and finding your own inner strength, it holds a considerable amount of relatable material. Telling the story of the infamous P.T.Barnum, considered to be the founder of entertainment as we’ve come to know it, the film also sells itself on spectacle and lively sequences of colour and talent – and it certainly delivers on that sales pitch. It’s a beautiful movie and one that I could happily watch over and over. Yes, it undoubtedly rather comfortably follows familiar patterns both in style and narrative, but the film does it damn well and frankly, not everything has to be ground-breaking to be powerful; sometimes taking something familiar and reconstructing it with a new pulse works magic too. It’s a film full of heart, passionate characters and passionate performances from some wonderful actors complete with tribulations to stir up conflicting emotions in audiences while offering some key messages for our times.
Following Barnum’s journey from a poor orphaned nobody who falls in love with an unattainable girl from an uppity family, we see him seeking success and hitting on the unlikely option of creating a forum for audiences to view oddities from around the world. When his tired, dead, stuffed and inanimate oddities find no favour, he seeks living wonders to display to a decidedly sceptical nineteenth century community. What follows is an emotive take on Barnum’s story, some exploration of the many shapes prejudice takes and ultimately multiple stories of triumph – it definitely side-steps any acknowledgement of the exploitative nature of his business in favour of focusing on how his ambitions empowered the down-trodden – and that may smack of a little too much re-writing of history for some. There are some high hurdles in the form of infatuations, familial frictions, local uprisings and Barnum’s blind gambling with fate, but Barnum, his family and his employees see success in the end.
Directed by Michael Graces, with Screenplay by Jenny Bucks and Bill Condon and with original songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, The Greatest Showman Sells itself on spectacular scenes of the performances in Barnum’s arena. But the film opens with a softer, more delicate introduction to song and dance (albeit following a hard-hitting rude awakening for poor Barnum) as the Young Barnum and Charity, played with sugary sweet sincerity by Ellis Rubin and Skylar Dunn, sing of the future, fully aware that Charity’s parents will never allow them a life together. The sequence sees them writing to each other as time skips from childhood to adulthood before the fully flourishing Barnum and Charity, played by Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams, burst onto the scene in a beautiful dance routine which will no doubt prove iconic over time. Their voices blend well, with Jackman’s voice being classically deep and masculine while Williams’ soft but powerful and pure vocals stay with you for just a few seconds more when the song has finished. The relationship between the Barnums offers great warmth to the story, even if the dynamic of doting wife who values nothing more than love while her husband hungers for greater things for them is easily recognisable. The dynamic is played perfectly as we see a happy marriage tried and tested by both internal and external forces; we feel for Williams when her character faces a rival for her husband’s attention just as we allow the gentle, fun family scenes to wash over us in a warm glow of musical artificiality. Cheesy? Definitely. But no more so than any musical.
Jackman’s take on Barnum is a Hollywood classic; charming, dashing and determined but with a heart of solid gold, even if he does go astray with it along the way. His desperate need to prove himself to everyone isn’t over-played as is a real danger with the role – instead, that fight makes his character likeable and we feel inclined to root for him, even when his decisions cloud our vision of him as that good guy with the solid heart. He shows his employees that if you don’t like the narrative of your life constructed by others, pick up the pen yourself and change their perspective; he shows Tom Thumb, played with tragic angst and a pervading sense of defeat by Sam Humphrey, that they may ridicule you when you’re standing on the ground at under a metre in height, but costume yourself as a hero and command a regal beast and you’ll force them to see you in a new perspective. This chancer and self- made man offers his expertise on how to razzle dazzle crowds with no more than an iron will and an unshakeable facade of total certainty.
We also have the popular sub-plot of the complicated romance between Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler, played by Zac Efron and Zendaya. It’s another rose-tinted aspect of the film as Carlyle is taken with Wheeler at first sight but their story offers some originality in the very real danger presented by their possible connection. Raised by yet more uppity parents in the community, Carlyle has made a name for himself in slightly more respectable circumstances than Barnum, who hoodwinks and pays lip service just to make a start. When Carlyle joins Barnum, it’s an insult to his stoic parents, played by Byron Jennings and Betsy Aidem, but when they see his closeness with one of Barnum’s performers – a spot lit trapeze artist oddity in exile from society, let’s just say they are not best pleased and Carlyle has a decision to make. Efron’s stand-off with his parents has you internally cheering, which is another check in the classic Hollywood movie column but even while the film does carry these somewhat formulaic elements, it does so brilliantly so I can’t fault it. Efron plays the pained Carlyle with brooding eyes and lingering looks while Zendaya’s character is played with wounded sentiment and some well-earned fiery scenes. Their aerial routine is a key source of spectacle in the movie, has proved to be a crowd-pleaser and serves as a reminder of Barnum’s circus origins.
If you’ve read anything about this film since its release, you’ll have heard about the loudly enthusiastic reception to Keala Settle’s performance as Lettie Lutz, the Bearded Lady. Settle is magnetic, there’s no doubt about it, and her character is such a recognisable figure of the period of ‘freak shows’ and ‘circus acts’ that the character was instantly ripe for maximum emotive impact. Our first glimpse of Lutz sets the tone of her journey perfectly; hiding away from snickers in a steamy laundry, where the smoke disguises the dark, full beard she has, Lutz is almost invisible. Barnum’s sales pitch terrifies her and she shrinks away from his attention as much as she shrinks away from the parting in the steam he has created with his entrance. From there her character endures a rocky journey fluctuating between abject terror at being put on display, eventual empowerment and a sense of belonging, to a defiant rejection of anyone calling into question her newfound and hard-won sense of worth, whether that question is direct or through indirect action. It’s a deeply moving performance and Settle’s musical tour de force, This is Me, is by far the most memorable moment of the movie as a whole – the fact that it’s now in the charts and she’s set to perform it at the Academy Awards is no surprise to me.
Rebecca Ferguson offers a hand grenade to be thrown into the mix as Jenny Lind the Swedish singer who gives the film the fantastic sequence for the song Never Enough – another memorable musical number for the film, the song (vocals by Loren Allred) is urgent, soaring and re-emerges in memory as you gather your things to leave the cinema. As his act of oddities sparks both scorn and protests, Barnum can’t be content with his considerable success, he must achieve respectability for himself and his family before he can rest on his laurels. He tracks down a more traditional act in Lind which will patch up the holes in his reputation and allow his place in social circles to be fully deserved somehow. Having spent so much time with performers whose appeal is purely physical – be it their unusual appearance or simple tricks, he finds himself infatuated with the talent – the ‘real’, pure talent of Lind and he puts everything into promoting her. He manages to win the favour of the upper circles of society and even manages to make the sardonic and terminally unimpressed reporter, played by Paul Sparks, to finally offer praise, but at great personal cost.
What struck me most about this film was how timely its themes and its strengths are. With much of the emotive power found in the insecurities of Barnum’s performers, modern audiences, and particularly young audiences, should find much to connect with – if you’ve been reading the papers lately, you’ll likely share my opinion on this. Mental health issues in teenagers are soaring, with anxiety about social interactions and physical appearance in a world of social media filtering being primary triggers. We are also still seeing too many headlines of stories about conflict and prejudice toward races, religions, genders and orientations – meaning this film has the potential to resonate with so many. With that in mind, it’s easy to see so many of the characters in this story making for great role models for the young and impressionable watching this film – a film offering an important message to the young and impressionable; if society as a whole doesn’t see your worth, individuals within it will; if you can’t see your own worth, others will; and if your family can’t appreciate you, there is a family out there of your own creation who will love you for who you are. For a film to have so many memorable moments, so many memorable and meaningful songs and with so much resonance for our times, for me, The Greatest Showman is definitely a new classic and should be seen by everyone under 18 as a rule. Why? I’ll take a line from the movie, from that sceptical nay-saying journalist who finally came to realise that this story represents ‘a celebration of humanity’ – go and see it!