The Greatest Showman Review

Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman
P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is a near-penniless dreamer determined to build a better life for himself and wife Charity (Michelle Williams). A circus brings profit but not respectability — so he gambles it all on a tour for opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).

by Helen O'Hara |
Published on
Release Date:

26 Dec 2017

Running Time:

95 minutes

Original Title:

The Greatest Showman

A year ago, La La Land was hailed as the saviour of the movie musical, but it only went so far, aping the look but not the tone of the old classics. The Greatest Showman, on the other hand, is an unabashed throwback, consciously modelling itself on the likes of Carousel and The Greatest Show On Earth, but adding modern pop tunes and a whole heap of CGI. It races along at a breakneck pace and occasionally stumbles into mawkishness, but is carried along by Hugh Jackman’s total commitment and some appallingly catchy songs.

Carried along by Hugh Jackman’s total commitment and some appallingly catchy songs.

Our hero is Phineas Taylor Barnum (Jackman), who we glimpse at the height of his circus fame before flashing back to a tough childhood on the streets — though he still manages to win the heart and hand of rich girl Charity (Williams). Dreaming of better times for them both, he cons his way into a bank loan and opens a wax museum, but when that threatens to go under he adds a collection of “unique individuals”: a bearded lady (the stunning Keala Settle), the diminutive Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) and more. Success follows, but Barnum is still confined to the fringes of high society. So he gambles all he’s built on the “Swedish nightingale”, opera singer Jenny Lind (Ferguson), who hypnotises him and threatens his marriage, and a high-class tour of the country’s opera houses.

The film races through its plot so there’s more time to lavish on its big-production numbers, and it’s here that director Michael Gracey’s comfort with tech is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, his meticulously planned dazzle really does glimmer with colour and flash, but he leans a little too heavily on the CG to stitch together impossible camera angles, create trapeze wires that don’t obey the laws of physics at all and add in animal accompaniment, in a way that sometimes amplifies artificiality in an already tall tale. Perhaps that’s in keeping with his subject — Barnum did, after all, put his giant on stilts and stuff the shirt of the “world’s fattest man”, so perhaps too much seemed like just enough.

Still, the story’s more or less just a hook for, firstly, a succession of songs by Dear Evan Hansen’s Pasek and Paul, and they largely deliver. There are four or five absolute bangers here, and you can count on at least one sticking in your head for a week or more. And secondly, it allows us to watch a brash, big-hearted, blindly optimistic turn from Hugh Jackman as the unsinkable Barnum himself. It’s ultimately about that hoariest of clichés — learning what’s really important in life — but it’s delivered with such sincerity and heart that it’s hard to mind.

It may not be quite the greatest show on Earth, but Gracey, Jackman and the entire cast are deeply committed to entertaining and leave you feeling an old-school musical thrill.
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