Impresario PT Barnum given big screen makeover in lethally bland musical
ALISON ROWAT Dir: Michael Gracey With: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson Runtime: 105 minutes
PT Barnum loved show business and show business has loved him right back, with films, musicals and books galore about the circus master. The impresario behind General Tom Thumb and a mermaid with the head of a monkey certainly knew the value of giving the public something new. As such he might have sympathised with any modern movie maker trying to tell his story for the umpteenth time.
But even the king of cornball, the sultan of sunny side up, might have baulked at what they’ve done with the song and dance of his life, ma, in this lethally bland musical drama. The man with a talent for making the public gawp has been given an America’s Got Talent makeover and his political incorrectness corrected. The results were enough to leave this viewer slack-jawed in amazement, and not in a good way.
Hugh Jackman plays Barnum, a move that makes one warm to Michael Gracey’s picture immediately. The star of Les Mis has form in fronting top-flight festive season musicals, and with Bill Condon (Chicago) one of the writers, what could possibly go wrong?
A lot, as we see from the opening song, a modern, poppy, middle of the road number. Music at odds with the period setting is not to all tastes – see the howls which greeted Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette – but the dancing, too, is stompy, aggressive, straight outta a pop video stuff.
Save for the odd, quieter number, such as the one which accompanies the story of Barnum’s lifelong romance with wife Charity (Michelle Williams), the music stays in the pop mould, eventually settling on the kind of ear-bashing power ballads that would not be out of place in a TV talent show. Most of the time, one feels less caressed by the songs than assaulted.
The power ballads, with their “take me as I am” lyrics, suit the picture’s modern take on Barnum: that he gave a home, and jobs, to those who would otherwise be shunned by society. But he did so to make money out of them, something the picture nods to but does not acknowledge nearly enough.
Likewise, the use of animals in his museum and shows does not figure here as largely as it did in reality. In keeping with modern sensibilities which rightly