Hugh Jackman is at his most relatable here in this cheerful fantasy musical, so mainstream it is at the exact centre of the road as if placed there by some impossibly sophisticated scientific implement. The film succeeds in being cheesy and sugary at the same time, and is very loosely based on the life of the legendary showman and inveterate crowd-pleaser Phineas T Barnum, the man who in the 19th century possibly invented entertainment as we know it today.
Another type of movie might seek to draw parallels between the cheeky impresario Barnum – frantically promoting fake or at any rate unreliable news about giants, bearded ladies etc – and another questionable American celebrity of the present day. But this is a Barnum we can all get behind. He’s an entrepreneur, a dreamer, a family man, an idealist, an underdog, a proto-modern evangelist for diversity (he has circus turns of all shapes and sizes) and he’s someone for whom the template for conventional white body image is not the be-all and end-all.
Barnum’s career is interestingly depicted as something which shows how showbusiness moved from the margins to the mainstream: from a wacky circus tent to something at the very centre of American life. Here is the rackety and cheerfully disreputable vaudeville from which Barnum made his fortune: the macabre wax figures of historical figures and exotic stuffed animals, the cabinet of strange curiosities, the human freaks whose backgrounds and anatomical achievements he may have exaggerated just a trifle. And then we had the live-action circus acts that he tried next.
Barnum is lowbrow, and proud of it. But he is shown here respecting highbrow. Barnum’s young daughter is aspiring to be a great ballet dancer. Yet the real villain of the piece is that cultural flavour which came in between: middlebrow. Barnum is shown gambling his reputation on promoting the “Swedish songbird” Jenny Lind, played by Rebecca Ferguson, warbling her undemanding ballads, somewhere between the unwholesome shlock on which Barnum made his fortune and the elevated fare that Barnum admired. Phineas gambles a lot of his own money on promoting a tour for Jenny. Perhaps he gambled his domestic happiness, as well, possibly betraying his wife and children by having an affair with her, although this film leaves it ambiguous as to whether he actually committed adultery.
Jackman is the fresh-faced but poor young man who is looking for a way to make his fortune. Michelle Williams plays Charity, his wife and childhood sweetheart who threw in her lot with him: romantically marrying for love, and having two daughters with him. Having discovered the possibility of making a fortune by, as it were, underestimating the taste of the American public, Barnum realises he needs someone to give him an entrée into the more upmarket clientele. So he goes into partnership with a young man which this film imagines as a fresh-faced trust-fund figure who has had some success with the legitimate theatre: one Philip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron. He is an imaginary persona, not to be confused with the real-life James Anthony Bailey, who in fact was associated with Barnum at the very end of his career.
This Carlyle is someone whose purpose it is to show how the film identifies with the marginal and dispossessed: Efron’s character falls in love with beautiful African-American trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) – to the horror of his bigoted and wealthy parents.
It’s a movie which in some ways resembles Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge from 2001: a celebratory and euphoric entertainment which is not overly concerned with dramatic or psychological consistency. It is all about the mood, the feel, the general sugar rush of euphoria. I can imagine the same treatment being given to the early career of the great theatrical magician Orson Welles.
And Hugh Jackman is absolutely the right casting for this figure – at least as he is imagined here. A less starry-eyed dramatisation might give the role to Paul Giamatti or Toby Jones. At any rate, Jackman gives this the muscular heft that it needs. He has the musical theatre chops and the film pizazz to sell it; he is approachably handsome and his singing voice is light, pleasant, yet strong and competent. It’s not a film to break moulds or test boundaries. Yet Jackman’s real charm will carry you along.