Release: Friday, August 12, 2016
Written by: Nicholas Martin
Directed by: Stephen Frears
This review is dedicated to my mother, who would have absolutely adored this movie.
Florence Foster Jenkins is a biopic you just have to see if you were swept up in the William Hung story in 2004. American Idol this is not, but it is a look into the life of one of the worst opera singers to ever live, a woman who many believed had no right being on stage driven by her own confidence and the politeness of those closest to her.
What could have been a painfully awkward, mean-spirited debacle instead matures into an entertaining and dignified exploration of a rather interesting woman. As steady-handed as it is predictable, this is a certifiable crowd-pleaser. Though his film had plenty of opportunity to do so, director Stephen Frears (The Program; Philomena) recognizes that humiliating and degrading his subject is a job best left to the Simon Cowells of the world. After all, this is a movie about the pursuit of a dream, not a game show in which contestants are regularly mocked just for having one.
Meryl Streep takes on the role of the titular New York heiress, officially proving there is no role in which she cannot excel. Arguably that debate has been settled for awhile, but here she gets to embrace an entirely unique challenge — trying to sound like a worse singer than she really is. Ricki and the Flash. Into the Woods. Heartburn. Death Becomes Her. Mamma Mia. Her career is littered with singing roles so the question was never going to be whether she would sound good. Actually it was the opposite. To genuinely sound like a cat slowly dying requires a level of confidence (and conscientiousness) few actors would be able to demonstrate. Jenkins was famous for her “oh-HO-HO-ho!” inflections, and recreating this quirk without descending into parody proves to be a fine line Streep is more than prepared to walk. Once again it’s strong work from the three-time Oscar winner.
The affair remains simple and treads in well worn shoes in its recounting of a period late in Jenkins’ life, when she became obsessed with putting on a show at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. Major characters are introduced one by one, starting with dear husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who has for years been her emotional backbone as she pursues her love of music, regularly helping her host performances at the ritzy music club she owns. There’s a lot of history between these two. Over time a presumably passionate love affair has been reduced to small acts of kindness that seem to be carried out more with obligation and professional courtesy than anything else. In the early going we see St. Clair sleeping with another, much younger woman (Rebecca Ferguson) in his own apartment where parties are regularly thrown. He believes there are many different types of love and that Florence understands this too. (Here’s the unscrupulous Hugh Grant I never knew existed. Guess I should watch more Hugh Grant movies . . . wait, no. God, what am I saying!)
The film’s only other major player is aspiring pianist Cosmé McMoon (The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg), who finds himself swiftly drafted into the ranks after a brief audition. Unbeknownst to the bright-eyed, chipper youngster, he’ll be backing up a singer so dismal her husband has had to concoct a complex scheme to keep delusions of grandeur alive. For years he has been shielding the singer from nasty critics and gawking crowds, as well as filtering out the negative press from Jenkins’ regular news consumption. With concerns over his career mounting, McMoon tries to decline what he expects will be the Hindenburg of Carnegie Hall appearances. Bayfield, fearing the ramifications of a carefully constructed façade collapsing, insists he stick with it.
Indeed, Florence Foster Jenkins is as much about the singer living a dream as it is about the young talent overcoming preconceived notions and discovering fame and success of his own. The pianist never ventured away from his gig with the tone-deaf soprano, despite initial concerns that precisely this would happen. One of the more rewarding aspects of the film is experiencing the transformation that happens on the boy’s face: an initial cringe of disgust eventually yields a deep smile conveying genuine satisfaction. It’s the very same thing that happened to me as I watched this lightweight but ultimately wholesome drama unfold. In spite of her wretched singing voice, Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t help but win me over.
Recommendation: Florence Foster Jenkins is a study in professional and personal dignity. Meryl Streep is the built-in reason to see it, but this is a great one to watch to get a better understanding of the situation surrounding the singer and the kind of life she lived. It is a tonally well-balanced piece, never reaching too far in one direction or the other. You get glimpses of some nastiness, but I am glad to say FFJ is a way more positive film than I was expecting, and funnier too. Strongly recommended for fans of Stephen Frears’ work as well.
Running Time: 111 mins.
Quoted: “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
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