Okay, so we need to get one thing clear: The Greatest Showman is in no way a biopic. It may purport to tell the tale of PT Barnum, but it’s so far removed from the insalubrious truth that it’s more accurately filed under fiction. It borrows Barnum’s name, that’s all, and a few details from his life. Otherwise, it’s pure fantasy: a complete reimagining of the infamous freak show.
That’s not to say it doesn’t work; it’s a highly entertaining and lively piece of cinema, beautifully produced and performed with precision and wit. It’s bright and exhilarating, with catchy tunes. No doubt about it: this is fun.
In this version of events, PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is a striver: a poor tailor’s son with huge ambitions, who falls in love with Charity (Michelle Williams), a rich, upper-class girl, and is determined to provide her with the lifestyle he believes she deserves. He’s a risk taker and a charlatan, but he’s charming with a big heart, and disarms everyone he meets. When they fall on hard times, he decides to open a circus, showcasing such ‘freaks’ as a bearded lady, conjoined twins, a dwarf and a fat man. In his fictional incarnation, he’s not exploiting them, exactly, although he is making money from their efforts; he’s celebrating them, offering redemption to those society has rejected, helping them to forge a kind of family. And all progresses swimmingly, until he can’t resist the charms of opera singer, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems like a passport into the higher echelons of society. He risks everything to promote her, and it all comes crashing down.
It’s utterly enchanting, even if it isn’t true, and there are some excellent set pieces, such as the freaks’ defiant song of self-determination, This Is Me, led by bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), whose voice is just spectacular. Jackman is very good too, and Michelle Williams proves again that she’s a real chameleon, able to convince – it seems – in almost any role.
I was disappointed, though, to learn that Rebecca Ferguson doesn’t sing her own songs (she is dubbed by Loren Allred); Ferguson is a fine actress with a face just made for the big screen, but was there really no one available who could deliver the whole deal? It seems a shame to give the part to someone who can’t play it, just because she is a ‘name’. There are enough stars in this film to carry it, surely?
Still, quibbles aside, this is eminently watchable, itself fulfilling (ironically perhaps) what it claims were Barnum’s aims: it’s rare indeed to see such a diverse range of performers given such prominent roles in a movie. It has the feelgood factor in bucketloads, and is eminently suitable for a family audience.