Oscar Week Film Review: The Greatest Showman

Defying the critics and showcasing the marvellous Keala Settle, there’s more to like about The Greatest Showman than you might think. Or not.

“The noblest art is that of making others happy”

There’s always something amusing about a piece of art that manages so successfully to flick two fingers at the critics and right now, none more so than The Greatest Showman. In the UK alone, it has achieved a box office consistency near the top of the list unseen since Avatar, the cast recording has been at the top of the album charts for the past two months, and such is its hold on the zeitgeist that it is now holding singalong performances across a range of cinemas.

None of which you would have predicted on its critical reception ahead of its Boxing Day release. It’s not an accurate portrayal of PT Barnum’s life, some said; it doesn’t have enough of a dramatic narrative, others sniffed; still more have derided its complete lack of any post-modern ironic edge, de rigueur for a contemporary musical so they’d have you believe. And there’s merits to all of these points though they do seem to spectacularly miss the point of the film, which is pure entertainment.
It is on shaky ground if you scrutinise it too deeply but if you just go in with a bag of Butterkist, critical faculties switched off and your best belting voice at the ready, The Greatest Showman taps into something as sweet and wonderful (and yes, insubstantial) as candy floss. But as the immense twinkling charm of Hugh Jackman guides us through the genesis of the circus, as Pasek and Paul’s shiny songwriting hits paydirt once again, as it taps into an old-fashioned sense of spectacle, it proves hard to resist. And if you don’t like it, then that’s absolutely fine too!

Pleasingly for me, the film has also provided breakout success for Keala Settle, playing Lettie Lutz – a bearded lady – whose big number ‘This Is Me’ is a true powerhouse moment, the perfect vehicle for this undersung Broadway performer (so very good in Waitress) to let loose. And it is this song which has scored The Greatest Showman’s sole Oscar nod and means that Settle will get to impress an even wider audience with what should, by rights, be one of the stand-out moments of the night.

Photograph: Niko Tavernise/AP

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