Review / ‘The Greatest Showman’ (PG) ***

ONE of the big movies of 1952 was Cecil B de Mille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth”, which used location footage of the Barnum and Bailey circus.

Sixty-five years later, Michael Gracey’s film purporting to tell how Phineas T Barnum got into the circus business is an end-of-year biggie.

TV brought a fatal illness to travelling circus. Political correctness completed the task. Modern circuses do their best but let’s face it –circus without animal acts is only a pale shadow of what it was when Barnum got into it. Few animals are as lovingly cared for as circus animals.

Gracey’s film takes time figuring out how it intends to tell its story. A noisy, colourful and drawn-out prologue sounds like a rock concert and looks like a Bollywood epic. The screenplay by Jenny Hicks and Bill Condon begins with a second prologue, telling how itinerant tailor’s son Phineas and wealthy merchant’s daughter Charity, neither yet through puberty, fall in love and, played by Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams, grow up to marry and produce two daughters and a freak show.

Freak show ? Damn right. Phineas realised that people would pay to see and laugh at people to whom nature had given a rough deal in the appearance department – little Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) , bearded lady Lettie (Keala Settle), Siamese twins Chang and Eng, a giant, a strong man, a fat man, a man who looked like a dog, an albino woman; the list grew and prospered.
According to the film, a rock that nearly broke the Barnum family’s wheel was the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) whom Barnum imported in 1850 after a career singing soprano roles in grand opera. The film’s Jenny is not by any measure an operatic soprano.
The structure of “The Greatest Showman” is part song, lots of dancing, part dialogue, total fancy that may have some historical basis but for present purposes is at best choreographic mayhem (more Bollywood) to jangly rhythms and lots of percussion.

The end comes when Barnum’s New York theatre burns down and he decides to go on the road under canvas, the entertainment medium that bore his name through amalgamation with at least two other circuses.

Modern circus is not an American invention. Most of its tradition, style and nomenclature developed in Europe after retired English cavalry sergeant-major Philip Astley first staged it in 1768. As a child I loved it. I mourn its passing.

At all cinemas

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