Okay, right off the bat I need to be clear; I know this is a highly fictionalized version of PT Barnum’s life and that it whitewashes more controversial and problematic parts of the tale. However, this is a review of the film, not a comparison with facts. Therefore I stress my enjoyment of the movie is not an endorsment of the real life Barnum.
So, yeah, I enjoyed this film. I went in slightly apprehensive as for some reason I thought it was a Baz Luhrman movie, but it’s actually directed by Michael Gracey who has Luhrman’s abilities with choreography and big sequences, without his more overblown excesses.
Hugh Jackman excels as Barnum, a poor boy desperate to succeed and win the posh girl he loves. He makes Barnum a likeable character, a showy individual who blags his way through life.
He sets up a museum of curiosities in New York and quickly assembles a cast of unique individuals.
The film paints the freak show in an empowering light, with Barnum giving the performers a family and a home and treating them fairly. It’s a leap from the real story and it feels a little bit of a cop out, but the performers do well. Keala Settle playing the Bearded Lady is the focal point for this, a woman blessed with a great singing voice who gains confidence through her role in Barnum’s show.
The problems arise when Barnum becomes obsessed with respectability and showing up his dismissive inlaws. The chip on his shoulder is understandable, and it adds conflict. Caught up in his first highbrow success, the singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) he places himself in a financial danger and drives a wedge between himself and those close to him.
He ignores the show, treats the performers as though he is ashamed of them and his marriage to Charity, fantastically played by Michelle Williams, is shaken.
Williams is solid throughout, in a quieter, more fragile role who attempts to curb Barnum’s excesses and get him to appreciate his life, to let go of his deep rooted grievances and merely enjoy the happy life he has built. She serves as the balance to him and her singing is on point, it’s not a showy role compared to others but it is a solid performance.
Jackman carries the weight brilliantly, his Barnum a charming individual with relatable, understandable flaws. Even as he becomes selfish and foolish he keeps audiences onside and pulls back from utter scoundrel territory.
It helps that Jackman is phenomenal in the song and dance numbers, especially a strong opening number and several big duets with Williams.
The songs are fantastic throughout and the direction creates many outstanding set pieces. The strongest are Settle’s defiant “This Is Me” and a heartfelt duet between Zac Efron and Zendaya, “Rewrite the Stars” is lush, romantic and beautiful filmmaking.
The Efron and Zendaya subplot which sees his upper class man join as Barnum’s apprentice and fall for the trapeze artist is well played, if slightly rushed. It feels as though one or two scenes more might have fleshed out the romance more, but both performers do their jobs well.
It’s especially good to see Efron back to exuding his early charm and talents, having been in a few dumb comedies. He may be second fiddle to Jackman, but he showcases charisma which proves he could and should be one of the leading men of his generation.
In fact, the cast is universally good and the effect is a fantastic musical which charmed me. Big, daring and striking this mixes old school musicals with modern tech and effects.
The subject matter, despite the efforts to clean it up and give it an empowering spin, can’t eliminate the exploitation entirely and the appearance of circus animals was for me a jolt out of my disbelief. But taken as a musical and a work of fiction it succeeded in impressing and entertaining me.
Fun and well made, but probably won’t bear up to much scrutiny or factual analysis.
Verdict: An enjoyable and beautifully crafted musical, if one checks reality at the door and just goes with it. Jackman and Efron are standouts in a cast who are all on form. 8/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.