The Greatest Showman (PG)

AT a time when cinema can present any amount of spectacle, you’d think that a musical about the legendary 19th-century impresario PT Barnum would be a mind-blowing visual extravaganza.

Surprisingly, The Greatest Showman is a more muted affair. Though the charm of its performances, the quality of its songs – by the pair who won Oscars for their work on La La Land – and a powerful moral theme give it more than enough heart to dispel any Boxing Day blues.

The film uses plenty of licence in charting Barnum’s rise from poverty to national celebrity, via Barnum’s American Museum in New York and his nationwide tour with the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind.

A touching opening sequence shows the hardship he endured as a boy and the bond he forms with Charity, a girl from a wealthier family who will eventually leave that life behind to marry him. Years later, they have two daughters and are still poor. But he has an entrepreneurial streak and chutzpah to burn.

When Barnum takes a bank loan and buys a museum on Broadway, it’s full of dusty stuffed animals. His girls suggest he needs to add something “alive” and – throwing his own word back at him – “sensational”.

And so he goes hunting for his so-called “oddities”, people with unfortunate physical conditions, whose personalities he embellishes for effect: the dwarf he names General Tom Thumb, the bearded lady, the world’s supposed tallest, heaviest, hairiest. The museum is a hit with the working classes, while the rich look down with snobbish disapproval and bigoted thugs demonstrate their hatred.

Barnum’s willingness to put these people on public show is weighed against what the film suggests he gives them – a home, a family, an opportunity to be seen in the world. At the same time, the scriptwriters demonstrate the thin line between emancipation and exploitation in their plotting of Barnum’s wavering course, as his own need for social acceptance gets the better of him.

You might say that Hugh Jackman was born to play Barnum. The man best known as Wolverine is also a West End and Broadway musical star. And his joie de vivre drives the film. But it’s a pity this came in his late 1940s: the hair and make-up teams are too much in evidence when Barnum is a young man; and though Jackman is still all-singing and all-dancing, there’s a tiredness in the performance. When he lines up with Zac Efron, as Barnum’s fictional protégé, each could use a little of what the other’s got – Jackman being the more charismatic, Efron the fleeter of foot.

While Michelle Williams has a thankless role as the sensible wife in the wings, the other women fare better: Rebecca Ferguson as the opera singer with eyes on Charity’s man, Zendaya as Anne, an African American trapeze artist regarded by society with the same hatred or distaste as those with physical abnormalities, and Keala Settle as the bearded lady Lettie Lutz. Indeed, the film’s highpoint is a breathtaking duet between Zendaya and Efron, conducted while she whirls above and around him on her trapeze, during which their lovers wrestle with the societal barriers between them.

It’s possible to imagine this being made by Scorsese or Baz Luhrmann, directors with a kinetic visual approach. Despite a career in music videos, when first-time director Michael Gracey does try to pull out the stops, in the Big Top numbers that bookend the film, the result is a bland artificiality. He’s much better on a smaller-scale scenes in which the outsiders of Barnum’s world make their forceful stand for acceptance.