This American biographical musical film is loosely inspired by true life events that depicted how the famed Barnum & Bailey Circus was started by American Showman, P.T. Barnum. It tells the story of how the circus commenced, what it changed over time to become, and the lives of the artists who began it.
This film swings into the 2017 Christmas season in Australian cinemas with enormous gusto, and presents an energetic musical showpiece for holiday viewing. It is the story of a man with vision, who rises from nothing to unexpectedly create a phenomenon that stirred the public’s imagination. The film vibrantly and dramatically captures both emotion and mood.
Hugh Jackman takes the title role of P.T. Barnum, completely shedding his “Wolverine” Persona and his past life as star of the “X-Men” series.
The film is unashamedly nostalgic, and contrasts in tone and style with La La Land which gave viewers in 2017 a darker version of social reality. The two movies invite comparison. “La La Land” and this film aim at musical escapism, and both share the common theme of providing musical/dance escape from reality that gives relief from tough times.
In this movie, Jackman returns to the musical dramatic form that he showed as Peter Allen in the Tony Awarded, American stage presentation of “The Boy From Oz” (2003), and his Oscar nominated movie performance as Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” (2012).
This is a film about a self-made man who climbed up the social class ladder by putting on display bearded ladies, physically challenged men and women, and others who demonstrated human physical and mental variation from the norm. Barnum put all of them on show in a travelling circus, to celebrate human differences, and he put them there to entertain.
It is a sensitive task to dramatise what Barnum described as the display of “unique persons and curiosities” for the purpose of paid entertainment, but the film embraces the challenge by demonstrating the sheer exuberance of talent and humanity. Like Barnum in real life, Jackman and his circus troupe come alive in their routines, and there is a wonderful vitality and expression of joy in their performances.
Dramatically, the film works. Hugh Jackman is thoroughly charismatic in the role of P.T. Barnum. Michele Williams sweetly plays Barnum’s long-suffering wife, Charity. Rebecca Ferguson brings dramatic tension to her role as Jenny Lind, who becomes romantically involved with Barnum. And Zendaya, impressively plays the role of Anne Wheeler, who swings expertly in trapeze flirtations with Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), Barnum’s good-looking “apprentice”.
The musical itself is a collection of exuberant routines and circus wonders, energetic choreography, and Jackman is directed by the movie’s Director (Michael Gracey) with style. Set and costume designs are impressive, and the film’s choreographed sequences are particularly striking. This is a musical that shows Hugh Jackman in fine form and voice, and it demonstrates creatively the skills of the many talented people who share the screen with him.
The film, as intended, will generate great cheer among Christmas audiences. It is enjoyable and entertaining in a showy musical way, and, though thin in its story-line and sentimental at times, it projects joy and happiness and captures, in Jackman, a man who has helped define the identity of musicals on stage and screen. Rarely is a film applauded enthusiastically by an audience in this country when it finishes, and this is one of them. It is full of humanity for just the right reasons. It ends 2017 by offering us a joyous celebration of the humanity of all people, irrespective of their appearance, size, shape, or colour.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting | Uploaded by: Fr Richard Healey