Hugh Jackman shines as P. T. Barnum, a shipping company clerk whose redundancy inspires him to set up a museum of curiosities with the support of his wife Charity (Michelle Williams in a heartwarming role) and his two daughters. Barnum soon decides that a show of human ‘oddities’ would pull a better crowd and encourages serious playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron back at his musical best) to join the show as his partner. With the arrival of famous opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Feguson) on the scene, however, Barnum must wrestle between his untameable ambition and his loyalty to his performers and family.
So rarely does a film capture the spirit of its trailer. A trailer is, for all the obvious reasons, a collection of the film’s most striking images, funniest quips and most dramatic narrative moments all tied together under the big hit from its soundtrack. That’s why one of the most common complaints of films that fail to hit the mark is that all its best bits were spoiled in the trailer. How wonderful it is, then, when you come across a film that manages to saturate every frame with the sheer joy that was projected by its advertising campaign; a film that offers unbridled wonder and brilliantly performed, soaring musical numbers from the first scene to the last. It builds upon the warmth that its trailer promises and runs with it.
The Greatest Showman is a triumph. It is a film that celebrates all that is wonderful about the world: the unconditional love of family, the delight of entertainment and the beauty of difference. It weaves a bright and colourful picture of what is possible when you dare to dream and infuses every moment with a touch of magic. Director Michael Gracey finely balances stirring ensemble numbers with intimate and moving scenes between his talented cast to bring a film that moves with the rhythm of a West End hit and would be deserving of such a stage; a film that keeps you watching in awe without falling into any mid-movie lulls.
Every moment of the film is exquisitely choreographed, whether it’s a high-energy dance number or a character is simply walking across a room. Perhaps the best example of this choreography is a scene between P. T. Barnum and Phillip Carlyle in which the banging of shot glasses down on a bar begin a steady beat long before the music arrives. It is a musical, yes, but even the scenes without musical accompaniment come alive with the precisely judged movement of its characters. It’s like The Grand Budapest Hotel meets the ‘No Dames’ number in the Coen brothers’ Hail! Caesar.
You may have gone into The Greatest Showman expecting the based-on-a-true-story tale of a circus master and grand entertainer, but much like Barnum’s circus you’ll be leaving with something bigger and better than you imagined. It is an exhilarating rallying cry to celebrate otherness. The ‘freaks’ of the circus may have been gawped at in Barnum’s time but, much like the film’s catchy soundtrack, the film’s politics are far more modern than its setting and what was once exotic is now rightfully equal and just another glorious part of our rich and varied world. It is a bold celebration of bodies of colour, disabled bodies, queer bodies and bodies of all sizes… and the glory and power of the stage to shine light on those living in shadow.