Editor Chloe Woods tears into Michael Gracey’s historical musical.
Spoilers ahoy! This piece is more commentary than review.
Given the chance to ask one question, I would ask the creators of The Greatest Showman: why is this the set of lies you chose to tell?
We know films aren’t real. We know full well they are an act of showmanship, of illusion, of storytelling – something very close to a lie. But the point isn’t strictly truth; though historical films do often claim truthfulness and educational value, The Greatest Showman is not one of these, and perfectly upfront about it – the audience should twig from the beginning this will be a decidedly loose adaptation of the life of P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman). Frankly, if the trailer didn’t warn you, you have only yourself to blame. I’m not concerned that The Greatest Showman might have fudged biographic details, or exaggerate the tameness of elephants, or work to a timeline as thin as gossamer. No, the point is not truth: the point is honesty. We humans, poor creatures, might have some small talent for distinguishing raw fact from brute fiction, but we are so easily blinded by the dishonest.
Let’s start with. Fluid timelines may be excusable, but it does in fact make a great deal of difference whether The Greatest Showman is set before or after the American Civil War. After all: what Civil War? You wouldn’t know, from this film, that either the war or slavery ever occurred. You also wouldn’t know that P. T. Barnum’s career as a showman began in 1835 with Joice Heth, an eighty-year-old enslaved woman he presented as the nanny of George Washington; opinion varies on whether he bought or leased her but he sure as hell didn’t offer her a contract as a free agent. (The state of New York had passed an abolition law in 1799 and all slaves had been freed by 1827: but if Barnum could not legally have been anyone’s “master” in New York, that doesn’t mean anyone told the blind, paralysed Heth.) Knowing this history, which The Greatest Showman conveniently elides – in the film, he secures a loan from the bank with his former workplace’s sunken trading ships, establishing his con-artist traits but framing them as cheeky and benign – puts a very different angle on its approach to race relations.
Which is, after all, an approach that would suggest a generally – ah – progressive attitude, an openness of mind, on Barnum’s part. He hires siblings Anne (Zendaya) and W. D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) without comment; W. D. serves as a background character for the rest of the film, while Anne gets a romantic subplot with Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron). Carlyle is fictional in himself, conveniently freeing him from any of the prejudices which might have belonged to his real-life inspiration. Barnum’s reluctant business partner, won over during a song in which Jackman looks briefly as though he might be about to launch into a striptease, Carlyle acts as the voice of modern values in moments they can’t be completely shoehorned into Barnum’s character: and he falls in love with Anne, which – with the crudest of historical accuracy – would have been verboten in 1850s(ish?) New York. The film is so determined to hit you over the head with this, it’s hard to decipher what they actually like about each other. Look how racist people were then! Think of their forbidden love! For the viewer, the trials faced by the couple might well be accompanied by a sense of satisfaction, in knowing that we are better now… When the reality is that if we have, over time, adopted different values (mostly because the Black community, and others, fought tooth and nail to be recognised), it does not mean we are any less beholden to the blind assumptions of our culture: not more open-minded, only – a little – less racist.
The condescension peaks with Efron and Zendaya’s duet Rewrite the Stars, which is suitably cloying and more memorable for its accompanying acrobatics than any musical virtue. Credit to them for actually singing their parts, though: Rebecca Ferguson as “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind couldn’t manage that much.
Ah. Jenny Lind. A bit of research suggests she’s been unfairly represented (The Greatest Showman spins donations to charity as social-climber virtue-signalling) – twisted to further the arc of Barnum’s social-climbing ambitions. It is an arc, though real people don’t conform to dramatic structure, and an inconsistent one at that: does he want to be recognised specifically by the elites who shut him out in childhood, or can he simply not stand the thought of people he isn’t making laugh? The film spins a simple moral about the lure of the bright lights, fame and fortune, which Jackman’s Barnum – being at least a decent man, if not a good one – recognises and is conflicted about. It’s a pretty story; the issue is, all our evidence suggests the real Barnum, more notorious hoaxer and charlatan than defender of the downtrodden, wouldn’t have cared to hear it.
But sing for the outsider: the real musical standout is Keala Settle. This Is Me differs from most of the film’s attempted showstoppers (including the opening and closing numbers) by lingering after it ends: an uplifting, foot-stamping ballad of the kind Barnum’s showcases almost certainly would not have sung. I need to be clear: when we throw out the assumption of cultural familiarity with the past, we often make the mistake of also throwing out historical people’s sense of themselves as individuals or creators rather than passive victims of their social norms. Yes, there were people in the Victorian era who fought for the right to be recognised as human in a world determined to deny them: you can see that in the abolition movement, in various religious groups, in early feminist writers. But those at the very edges of society, showcased as freaks, for crowds to gawk at if not curse, rejected by their own parents and communities – do you think, even if they believed in themselves as deserving of a place in the world, they’d have dared to sing it? And do you think P. T. Barnum, who put them on display, would have been the benefactor who sang it alongside them?
Here we meet the lie at the heart of the lies: that rich men care for anything but riches. That’s a capitalist folly and in large part and Hollywood one: the point where Barnum’s carnival of lights loops back round to the film it’s enshrined in. Hell, maybe Barnum believed in his own fine tales about making people laugh. The film was seven years in development, probably because nobody thought it would sell until they heard about Hamilton (of the same mould: you do realise the man owned slaves, don’t you?); but maybe the film’s creators have convinced themselves they care for artistic pride and the smiles on their audience’s faces as much as they do for money. Go in knowing this and you’ll still be hard-pressed not to walk out whistling. That’s the game: keep ‘em coming back for more. Only a movie. Under it, the dangers of the lies; the master of freaks and inveterate fraud transformed into go-getting, spunky trickster hero. I would ask the creators of The Greatest Showman: is this what you really believe in? Cheap, dishonest, reckless – if nothing else, what better homage could there be to the man? Welcome to the circus…
The Greatest Showman is out now in UK cinemas. Check out the trailer: