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FILM REVIEW: Hugh Jackman dons red coat and top hat as 19th-century circus impresario PT Barnum in the musical The Greatest Showman.

Hugh Jackman stars
Hugh Jackman stars

The Greatest Showman (PG)
Running time 1hr 45mins
Rating: *

I WISH I could say that this PT Barnum biopic plays out like two scripts railroaded together, a dubious distinction that would at least ensure the cinemagoer a half-bang for their buck.

One among these hypothetical screenplays, of course, would concern the showbiz, the pizzazz, the tall times of a truly larger-than-life figure, a showman, politician and devout Unitarian.

The other would hold him to account as a conman, an exploiter of men, women and children who’s ‘freak shows’ would come to define the predatory spirit of America’s Gilded Age.

This critic honestly doubts there’s a filmmaker alive who could weave these two threads into a gratifying, nuanced whole – Barnum represents a bewildering case, a man whose abolitionist fervour was at odds with his pioneering a new trade in flesh and misfortune – yet the final movie could be said to have its heart (or, rather, a bit of it) in the right place.

The Greatest Showman has not the appetite (the COURAGE, one might suggest) to grapple with either of these stories – in fact, it does something more than a little monstrous, reducing its alleged subject to Luhrmann-esque pantomime.

The Barnum depicted here by Hugh Jackman bears not even a transitory resemblance to the historical Barnum – neither an affable rogue, a gifted shyster nor a baleful tyrant, he’s perversely realised as a doting, misunderstood father striving to rise above penuriousness.

For a little while, the act feels merely offkey – though it’s clear director Michael Gracey isn’t planning to deal with the man’s dark side, Jackman’s a natural fit for the role, and even Zac Efron’s keeping up a streak of passable performances, headlining here as a (fictitious) partner of Barnum’s.

Somewhere down the line (and I think the precise point will vary from viewer to viewer), the spell the film endeavours to induce with a succession of brassy Broadway spectacles will begin to wear; suddenly, a half-cocked fantasy becomes an intolerable one.

In my case, this came with an early scene featuring Barnum’s recruitment of Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), taking the form of an extended monologue ‘revealing’ the showman as a well-intentioned figure of charity; it is implied that Barnum was drawn to the business out of a personal identification with America’s outcasts, a jarringly distasteful proposition that’s only compounded by Gracey’s downright credulous approach to the subject matter.

With its evocation of the freak show as an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza, peopled by jovial human ‘exhibits’, the film harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, to a time when the appearance of plump, cheery slaves in plantation dramas was unlikely to elicit so much as a whisper of dissent; whereas you can get away with excusing the pictures of old as quaint, embarrassing affairs, however, The Greatest Showman seems to have mislaid a century’s case notes on silver screen ethics.

Its naivety is startling, even grotesque.

In a sense, the real PT Barnum was an unsuccessful charlatan – his stunts and gimmicks (the ‘Feejee Mermaid’, ‘George Washington’s Mammy’) fooled few among his followers.

His genius lay in his tapping a 19th-century market for senselessness, in his peddling a temporary, colourful reprieve from the strictures of a ‘rational’, increasingly godless society; he showed people the PLEASURES of being taken for a ride.

This dull, execrable film fails both as a believable portrait and as an entertainment.

I’m sure Barnum would’ve appreciated the irony, but he’s dead.

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