The Greatest Showman - A Clash of Class and Showbiz


The film is a visual treat. And it makes full sense when we say the director Michael Grey is also a visual effect artist. A well made musical with an outstanding cast. Hugh Jackman surely gave a lively performance, something cheerful after playing the sulky Logan early this year. Yet the real hero of the film is not Jackman or Zac Efron; it is their Circus- the performers.

Before judging The Greatest Showman, we have to admit- musicals are not for everyone. It requires a certain amount of patience to wait for each dialogue that is sung. If Jackman had to sing and whine all through Les Misérables (2012) this time he had to play a bit of Gene Kelly on screen. His ‘P.T Barnum’ was poised, steady and graceful- a man with a tireless soul, ambitious and ever optimistic. And needless to say there is a lot of drama when the story is set in the early nineteenth century America- a society still under the influence of the prudish Victorians of England.

The starving little boy Barnum always knew that he was going to make a successful future. His fascination with the upper class life begins as he falls in love with Charity, a girl from a higher class family. At last he elopes with Charity while her father believes that his daughter will be back once she has enough of the hardships of a poor life. Barnum promises her a rich life while she seems content with the simple life she chose.

Failing in many trades Barnum sees the possibilities of show business in Manhattan. He decides to start one by bringing ‘unique talents’ to his show. Seeing an earning potential in everyone he meets, in everything he thinks he hires people of biological rarities around the city. He persuades them to come out of the dark rooms of their houses, to be exposed and to be loved by the crowd. But it’s not an easy task. For the people, they are ‘freaks’. While hiring them Barnum says “Anyway they laugh at you, and might as well get paid for it”.

His show is a success. But he is unacknowledged by the upper class and the elite. Barnum pulls some strings, persuades an unsuccessful upper class playwright Carlyle to join his Circus, hires an opera singer with bad reputation and makes her a success, meets the queen and gets all contacts. As Barnum climbs up the class-ladder, somewhere, he loses his focus and there is a scandal. Charity leaves him. His Circus suffers, his performers feel neglected and the circus house is burnt down by the crowd.

But the show must go on. Barnum realises his mistakes, and starts over everything. He earns his performers’ trust back and at last he hands over the show to Carlyle- the next greatest showman in the making.

The story indeed shows how a man of humble backgrounds can rise to his dreams and his dedication to his wife’s happiness. As the second music number (A Million Dreams) plays Barnum and Charity waltz among the hanging bed linens on the terrace; they dream together with their two beautiful daughters. But, does Barnum inspire anyone? Hard to answer that as we see him retiring from the circus and later seen watching a ballet performance of his daughter, something the Victorian elite class was obsessed with. Barnum gets what he always wanted- money, class and recognition. And he never comes back to the show. He keeps a distance.

 Carlyle, on the other hand, is the one who sacrifices everything for his true self. His upper class family disowns him for joining the circus, he falls in love with a Black woman from the show; something that was unimaginable in the then society. Risking his reputation and life he remains true to his love and self as he embraces the Circus wholeheartedly. He prefers a life where everyone is treated equal and where everyone has an ‘act’ to perform.

The hero lacks credibility somewhere and we sense this when Barnum desperately runs after success, tireless and greedy. After every successful show the sound of the huge round of applause is artistically muffled for a few moments to show us Barnum’s intense eyes, watering as he gapes at his audience in wonder. But Carlyle is never blind of the limelight. It’s the difference of new money and old money.

The Greatest Showman is mesmerising with a spectacular array of characters and, arguably, with a shallow hero.

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