Circus Lights

After the charming La La Land, the old-fashioned Hollywood musical is back in vogue. Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman as real-life 19th century circus impresario P.T. Barnum, arrives in a shower of glitter and lights to take advantage. What it has going for it is Jackman’s remarkable charisma; he’s about as likeable as they come, even if Barnum himself – an exploiter, a philanderer and a ruthless businessman – isn’t quite as charming company.

It also has original songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Tony-winning duo behind the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen who also grabbed an Oscar for their brilliant work on La La Land. Beginning with The Greatest Show, an infectious number, the songs are bright and breezy, and Jackman in particular performs them with real gusto, although truth be told, they never quite scale the emotional terrain Pasek and Paul managed in La La Land. For all its shiny exterior, The Greatest Showman is a little hollow on the inside.

The story sees Jackman go from an ambitious nobody to setting up a circus with his “oddities” – a freak show, as it might be called, with acts like a Bearded Lady and the dwarf horse-rider Tom Thumb. Along for the ride are Barnum’s sweet-natured wife Charity (Michelle Williams), his brood of children and a business partner (Zac Efron), who fronts him the cash when he faces bankruptcy. Success goes to his head, however, and when Barnum meets opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), aka “the Swedish nightingale”, his head is turned.

It’s a very middle-of-the-road story, hardly the sort of showstopper the real Barnum might conjure. Theme of tolerance and individuality are also drilled into you, with an alarming lack of subtlety. The romance between Efron and Zendaya, the rising star from Spider-Man: Homecoming who plays a trapeze artist here, also strikes no real genuine emotional chords. But then perhaps former commercials director Gracey isn’t really aiming for that; he just wants to dazzle you with slick dance numbers, catchy songs and Jackman’s on-screen brio. That’s true showmanship, Barnum style.

James Mottram

The Greatest Showman opened cinemas on 26 December. For more information, visit:

1. Still from the trailer for The Greatest Showman. Starring Hugh Jackman.