Something of a passion project for its star, Hugh Jackman plays circus promoter PT Barnum in a biopic filtered through the glitzy framing of a musical. Born into poverty, Barnum believes one's station should not limit one's imagination; he manages to snag posh Charity (Williams) as a wife and sets about putting together a museum of wax models of animals, hoodwinking banks into giving him loans. When he fails to attract numbers Barnum, at the suggestion of his daughters to include something fantastic, assembles a troupe of 'freaks' - bearded ladies, dog boys, giants, dwarfs – but finds his collection oddities to suffer prejudice at the hands of locals…
Making his debut behind the camera, director Michael Gracey directs the hell out of The Greatest Showman. This musical is an energetic, bustling and eye-catching affair that skips through Barnum's life at breakneck speed, stopping only occasionally to add depth to his hero (the script was written by Sex and the City and Big Love scribe Jenny Bicks with Chicago and Dreamgirls' Bill Condon helping out). It can be fluffy, light stuff that boasts some inventive choreography; the number where dances with Zendaya looked very difficult to get right.
But there's more going on under the glossy surface. That character depth Bicks and Condon are at pains to explore causes one to rethink their opinion of Barnum. Taking a break once in a while from the heady rush of musical numbers allows the writers to question Barnum's motivations: did he believe in human diversity like he claimed or was he a charlatan hoping to cash in? The answer, perhaps, is somewhere in the middle. Further to that, he falls for Swedish singer Jenny Lind (a wonderful Rebecca Ferguson) when he manages to let her persuade her to manage her tour America, in the process relegating/dismissing his circus performers who he is overheard referring to as 'sideshow novelties'. It’s a refreshing turn in a musical - usually bending over backwards to make the hero or heroine as loveable as possible, The Greatest Showman dares to muddy the waters a little.
It does come unstuck once in a while, however. In its haste to race through the big moments of Barnum's life some interesting facets get overlooked: his insecurity over his poor background and his determination to be accepted by the upper class burns at the heart of Barnum but this is only dealt with in broad strokes. It’s dealing with prejudice – Barnum's charges are hounded by baying crowds – is a little on the nose, and the love affair between Efron's scandalised theatre producer and Zendaya's trapeze artist doesn't earn the beats it needs.