The Greatest Showman

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya

Director: Michael Gracey

Writers: Jenny Hicks, Bill Condon


The Greatest Showman is an upbeat, extravagant musical about love, diversity, and acceptance, centred on a man who was the antithesis of all those things. Far from the glitzy, broad-minded entertainer presented here, the real Barnum was a much more complex and questionable figure; someone who was known for being greedy, exploitative, opportunistic, dishonest, and cruel, and for having (at best) a problematic relationship with people of colour and ‘freaks’. This film brushes so much of Barnum’s darker side under the rug that it could only be called a biopic in the most liberal sense possible. But then, I think the filmmakers are aware of that. This film is so profusely romantic, fantastical, and sentimental that I don’t think any audience member is going to think of it as an accurate representation of Barnum any more than they would think of 300 as an accurate representation of Ancient Greece. Indeed, this story is so obviously phoney and is told in such a sensational way that, from that point of view, The Greatest Showman could be seen as the perfect representation of Barnum.

Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is a dreamer living within his humble 19th century means but is waiting for a chance to shine. He is married to Charity (Michelle Williams), the daughter of a wealthy family whom he’s known since childhood, and together they have two daughters. After losing his job as a clerk, Barnum takes out a loan to start a museum of wax figures, hoping to create a sensation that will take the world by storm. When sales prove meagre, he sets out to enlist individuals of unusual proportions, characteristics, and abilities, including the dwarf Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) and African-American trapeze performing siblings Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), to add some life to the show. The show is a hit, despite negative press, and Barnum renames his museum ‘Barnum’s Circus’. Seeking to improve his reputation with the upper classes, Barnum recruits playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as his business partner and famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) as his star performer. As his success grows however, Barnum starts to lose sight of his family, both literal and metaphorical.

The story is crap, to put it bluntly. It is wholeheartedly transparent, eye-rollingly schmaltzy, and every single second of it rings hollow and feels fake. However, it is the most spectacular, vivacious, entertaining crap I’ve seen in a long time. This movie may not be the greatest show, but every member of the cast and crew sincerely believes that it is and their earnestness and effort shine through. The whole thing feel phoney, but not a single person who worked on this film was phoning it in. Every single song is sung, choreographed and shot as if it is the show-stopping number of the musical and the images and sounds throughout are simply teeming with life, imagination and feeling. There is a sense of purpose and clarity behind every shot in every sequence, even when they get as frantic and intense as Moulin Rouge, and there is always a strong attempt being made to utilise the props and sets to their fullest potential, from the tables, glasses, and stools in the two musical scenes that take place in the bar to the knotted rope hanging in the centre of the ring in Efron and Zendaya’s romantic duet. I can scarcely dream what this team might have accomplished with a story of actual substance.

Even when the film is at its most silly and sappy, each performer from the main stars to the background singers and dancers are trying so hard and so sincerely that it’s hard to hold it against them. Jackman is every bit the showman the movie wants him to be and is so charming and likeable, you almost want to forgive the film for his thin characterisation and unearned climatic redemption. Williams, Efron and Zendaya are all bright-eyed and vibrant in their roles and hold nothing back in their full embrace of the film in all of its glorious splendour and fundamental misguidedness. They’re just so darn enchanting and heartfelt that their lack of self-awareness only adds to their appeal. Humphrey and Settle, the latter of whom is a magnificent singer, do wonders in their small roles, as does Sparks, whose theatre critic character serves as a pre-emptive surrogate for all those critics who don’t ‘get’ the film and denounce it for its gaudiness and cheapness.

But The Greatest Showman is gaudy and it is cheap. As stunning and enjoyable as the style and performances are, it’s all to serve the weakest and shallowest of plots. The film wants to celebrate the outcasts of society and the way that show business can create a home for those who have been rejected by all else so much that it happily overlooks the exploitative qualities of Barnam’s character, portraying him instead as a child of poverty who identifies with the struggles the ‘freaks’ face in their everyday lives. Thus, when his ambition and pride cause him to neglect his wife and children and the makeshift family he has built, he must then be reminded of what’s really important in life, after which everything is fine and they live happily ever after. It isn’t about being historically accurate, it’s about being true to the hardships being depicted and the morals being conveyed and this film is far too one-dimensional and clichéd to offer any insights of actual worth. The Greatest Showman is a spectacle well worth beholding, but the showmanship is all there is.

★★★

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Beauty and the Beast

Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson

Director: Bill Condon

Writers: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos


Another year, another Disney remake. For the most part I’m not against the idea of updating and modernising Disney films in principle, but in practice I think the result has been mixed at best. Cinderella for example did a lot that worked better than in the original animation, but did just as much that did not. Meanwhile I felt that The Jungle Book did a lot that was different to the 1967 film, but little that I felt was better or worse. In both cases however I was open to the idea of the remake because I felt that both of the animations, while classics in their own rights, left something to be desired. In this, Beauty and the Beast is different. Beauty and the Beast, as far as I’m concerned, is as perfect as Disney gets. Not only is it a marvellous fairy tale with wonderful characters, fantastic music and beautiful animation, it’s also one of the few Disney films that actually gets better as I get older. It may be bias on my part, but I just couldn’t see what Disney hoped to accomplish by remaking this film.

In an 18th-century French provincial town lives Belle (Emma Watson), a solitary bookworm who dreams of excitement and adventure. She lives with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) and spends her days reading, thinking and rejecting the advances of the oafish Gaston (Luke Evans). When Maurice gets lost venturing through the forest, he seeks refuge in a castle where he is taken prisoner by the Beast (Dan Stevens). Belle comes to the castle in search of her father and offers herself as a prisoner in his place. The Beast, cursed by an enchantress to live as a horrific monster unless he should learn to love another and be loved in return, agrees. Also living in the castle are the Beast’s servants who, thanks to the curse, have taken the form of animate objects. These included Lumiere the candelabra (Ewan MacGregor), Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), and Mrs. Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson). With their help the Beast hopes to win Belle’s heart and break the curse.

Now, while I haven’t been a terribly big fan of the Disney remakes overall, I do appreciate how many of them have at least tried to do something different with the stories that we all know so well. This is why I found this new Beauty and the Beast to be so aggravating. This film, rather than trying something different, is almost as much of a shot-for-shot remake as Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. It’s actually a bit of a paradox really. This film is exactly like the 1991 film, and yet somehow nothing like it. It copies everything the original did but it lacks all of the magic and humanity that made the film work as well as it did. None of the movie’s events occur because they are motivated by the story or its characters, they occur because they’re following what happened in the original. The ballroom dance for example, by far the animation’s most iconic scene, is not built up to in any way. There’s no romantic dinner, no exchange of nervous glances, no playful sense of spontaneity; the film just cuts straight from the couple meeting at the staircase to them dancing in the ballroom. Why are they dancing? Because that’s what they did in the original movie.

I know that I shouldn’t be dwelling so much on how much better the 1991 classic is and comparing it with the remake, but this movie has brought it on itself. It spends so much time trying to recreate the original that I couldn’t help but be reminded of how wonderful and magical these moments felt when they took place in the animation as opposed to how empty and lifeless they felt here. When the film does vary, it’s to the story’s detriment. There are some additional scenes, such as when Gaston and Le Fou (Josh Gad) venture into the woods with Maurice to search for Belle, which only serve to pad the runtime. Occasionally there are some interesting ideas, one being the idea of Belle and the Beast bonding when they learn that both of their mothers died when they were young, but the film never goes anywhere with them. Then there are some elements like the magical teleporting book and the inclusion of a character called Agathe (Hattie Morahan) that are just plain stupid. The film’s greatest accomplishment is that it looks like Beauty and the Beast, which I think is the secret to the movie’s success. The sets, costumes and visual effects in this movie are so evocative of the original that it can sometimes be quite easy to fall for the illusion and think that you actually are watching Beauty and the Beast.

That illusion however is just as easily broken by the missteps the film takes in its direction. The casting of Emma Watson as Belle for example was a great idea on paper but not in practice. Not only is Watson a subpar singer whose voice lacks both power and expression, she’s also quite a limited actress. Her performance as Hermione worked because she was able to build that character very much in line with her own personality, but as Belle the limits of her acting ability became all too apparent. Her facial expressions rarely varied, her line deliveries lacked range and her body language felt forced. The rest of the cast meanwhile varies from bland to passable (with the exception of McGregor’s indefinable accent). Some of the CGI characters do pretty well and Gad gets an occasional laugh (despite his role as Disney’s first openly gay character being grossly overblown. I’m all for inclusivity but I’ve seen gayer characters in The Lord of the Rings!). Watson was the only one who struck me as out of her depth here.

I’d be lying if I said that I went into this movie with a completely open mind. Even putting aside my mixed on feelings on the Disney remakes I had already seen, this was a movie I already felt sceptical towards. After the trailer made it clear to me that this was very much going to be the same movie as the animation rather than a different take, I couldn’t understand why Disney would want to recreate what was already perfect (creatively I mean. The real rea$on Di$ney made thi$ film wa$ obviou$). I would have liked to be wrong. Nothing would have pleased me more than to be moved and enchanted by this film the same way I was by the original Beauty and the Beast. I wouldn’t exactly categorise this movie along with the worse of the Disney remakes. In fact, all things considered, it’s not even that bad a film. It was never as inane as Maleficent or as dire as Alice in Wonderland. On the other hand though, those two movies at least tried to take their stories into new directions. Thus, while Beauty and the Beast may not be the worst of these films, it is, for me, the most pointless.

Mr. Holmes

Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Milo Parker

Director: Bill Condon

Writer: Jeffrey Hatcher


Sir Ian McKellen, having played both Gandalf and Magneto on screen, knows a thing or two about playing iconic characters. Often when a character becomes iconic, the audience mythologises them. Their images and ideas of these characters become so ingrained in their minds that any change or deviancy from the original is often regarded with hostility, even when it’s done well and with the best intentions. Indeed, history has actually shown that it is possible for these characters to be reinterpreted and reinvented in many different ways while still remaining true to the essence of what makes them iconic. Sherlock Holmes, one of the most iconic characters in all of film and literature, is a prime example in this regard. From Basil Rathbone as the dignified and enigmatic sleuth, to Jeremy Brett as the unhinged and eccentric obsessive, to Benedict Cumberbatch as the modern-day high-functioning sociopath, many have offered their own unique portrayals of the great detective while still remaining true to the heart and soul of the character. This film explores the theme of the mythology of heroes by showing Sherlock Holmes, a man who both defines and defies the legend surrounding him, in the autumn years of his life.

Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) is 93 years old and has retired to the country. Watson, Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson have long since departed and so he spends his days in isolation tending to his bees with only his housemaid Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) as company. As he looks back at the circumstances of his final case and Watson’s portrayal of what happened, he finds himself unsettled by the unsatisfactory outcome of the story. In his attempt to remember what really happened and what catastrophic event must have actually taken place to have driven him into retirement, Sherlock becomes all too aware of his failing mind. All he remembers are fragments concerning a beautiful woman whose picture he still holds. The man who made his name and who became a legend for his singular ability to solve puzzles and mysteries becomes lost in his quest to unlock the secrets to his own mind and to human nature.

Unlike the recent offerings of the Sherlock Holmes mythos by Guy Ritchie and Steven Moffatt; Mr. Holmes is a quieter, more tempered story. This is something I found to be both a strength and a weakness. On one hand the tranquil tone of the film reflects the docility of Holmes’ life as he spends his remaining days contemplating and reflecting on the days of adventure now long behind him. On the other hand watching this film can be a laborious task as the story does drag at certain parts. Since this film does emphasise that the Sherlock Holmes of Watson’s stories is in fact a romanticised depiction of the man himself, it should therefore be no surprise that this film contains little of the exhilaration or the thrills for which his stories are known. Nonetheless I still found myself somewhat underwhelmed by how modest and restrained this film turned out to be.

Sir Ian McKellen provides an elegant performance both as the ageing Sherlock Holmes slowly succumbing to the dilapidation of age and as the younger Holmes at the prime of his wit and intellect undergoing what will be his final case. The bond he forms with Roger provides an emotional core to the story that I hadn’t expected to see and eventually leads to some fine moments both touching and heartrending. However I still felt like it could have been taken further. I never really felt like the Sherlock of this film ever really substantiated the remarkable, singular mind from the stories and perhaps that was the point, but still it seemed to me like the film could have delved further into Holmes’ psyche and could have gone further to show the gears at work. As refined and poignant as I found McKellen’s performance to be, I never really felt like the film got beneath the skin of his character. Although this film did an admirable job of showing the devastating effects age can have on a person, I didn’t really think it left much of an impression on me or really made its impact felt. The elements were all certainly there, I just think they could have been developed further.

Still, with all of its restraint and shortcomings, there is much about this film to admire. McKellen shines in the role of the great detective and provides his most emotional performance in years. The film is artistically shot and provides some beautiful images of the English countryside. The idea of man and myth is a compelling one as the film discusses the legend of Sherlock Holmes and its relationship to the man himself as well as offering an insight into the question of what happens to the hero after the legend is over. Even though the story is understated, the emotional journey of Holmes is diffident and the film commits the heinous crime of underusing Laura Linney, it is an interesting and sometimes moving film that provides an intriguing take on Conan Doyle’s creation.

★★★