P.T. Barnum is the greatest liar in the history of the world.
The businessman greatly profited from selling hoaxes to the world, including sewing the top half of a monkey and back half of a fish together and spruiking it as a Fijian Mermaid. His latest con is in ‘The Greatest Showman’, a spectacular musical based on Barnum’s life, or at least how he’d sell it.
Hugh Jackman plays Barnum, a poor man with a heart of gold, devoted to his daughters and wife, Charity (Michelle Williams). After being made unemployed, Barnum cons the bank for a loan to start his own circus, a long-held dream. His show attracts a number of performers, including Lettie the bearded lady and General Tom Thumb the dwarf, bringing customers and controversy.
‘The Greatest Showman’ is a dazzling film, bursting with colour and stunning choreography. The cast is charming, especially Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Barnum as a lovable rogue and Michelle Williams as the doting wife. The charm compensates for the lack of emotional depth of the characters; actors like Zac Efron don’t come alive except during musical numbers.
It’s the songs which really bring the film to life. Each one is expertly crafted, with uplifting builds overwhelming audiences with emotion and passionately executed by the cast. There is no doubt in my mind the soundtrack will be a big seller over the next few months.
As delightful as it is, ‘The Greatest Showman’ is also problematic. The film portrays Barnum as a charming peddler of tall-tales, which he was, but it airbrushes his exploitation of performers and animals. It asserts that Barnum helped his performers by championing their outsider status and individuality. In reality, they were just his collection of oddities to mistreat – he held a public autopsy for one he claimed was 161 years old, charging an admission fee. Because of my knowledge of Barnum beforehand, the polished revisionism left me feeling dirty.
A famous Barnum quote is, “A sucker is born every minute”. This applies to ‘The Greatest Showman’, as it sucks audiences in with its warmth and charm, and makes a sucker out of them with its romanticised rewriting of history. In a way, it is fitting that ‘The Greatest Showman’ is both sensationalised and sensational, much like Barnum himself.