Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief suggestive material
Running Time: 110 min.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Nicholas Martin
Review published August 15, 2016
Set in New York during the mid 1940s, Stephen Frears' (Philomena, The Queen) film about a real-life, upper-class heiress with a zest for music and charitable works gives Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods) another juicy role that taps into even more of her seemingly boundless talent as an actress, and as a singer (many of her more recent roles have utilized her vocal talent), even as a very good singer who has to sing quite badly. A former child prodigy at the piano who can no longer play due to an injured hand, Foster finds a way to keep herself in the limelight when she becomes a singer of opera, which she has done for friends or in small venues, while her doting husband-at-heart, St. Clair Bayfield (Grant, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), massages the crowd to her favor, whether through sympathy for their social enablers, to whom Florence Foster Jenkins has been a great benefactor of their art, or with a bit of bribery for members of the press, who go on to give warm reviews to her performances.
This isn't the first time that Jenkins' life has been made into a movie. The French-language film, Marguerite, was in theaters within the last year, though that work is only inspired by the wealthy lady's life, with more artistic freedom to play things loosely for the more comedic aspects. Frears, working from a script by veteran TV scribe but first time feature writer Nicholas Martin, allows us to see the farcical folly of Jenkins' pursuit as a singer worthy of performing at Carnegie Hall, but also paints her as a sympathetic person, and, ultimately, a tragic figure of a woman whose life could not be everything she had wanted it to be due to her chronic ailments. Ironically, Jenkins is now famous for her singing, though not exactly in the ways intended, but it is heartening to see that the two films inspired by her story display more sympathetic aspects to her story than just an inability to properly carry a tune.
The charming Hugh Grant also delivers one of his better performances in many years, playing Florence's common-law husband, St. Clair, who is shown as living a life devoted to his wife, even if he is engaging in an extra-martial relationship with a much younger woman in Kathleen (Ferguson, Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation), who has abided by his continued marriage yet doesn't want to be second fiddle in his heart. The word "devoted" comes up many times with St Clair's character, who has an "understanding" with Florence that allows him to find the kind of companionship that a syphilitic woman like her cannot provide, so long as he keeps all traces of the infidelity from her sphere of knowledge (St. Clair has his own apartment, giving him the private space necessary). This aspect is also in keeping with St Clair's continuing to keep Florence living in a bubble of blissful ignorance by trying everything he can to keep those who might deride her talent from making themselves known, surrounding the elder woman with only those who want to applaud her efforts (perhaps for their own benefit), and she readily laps up all the attention she receives. It should be noted, despite the assertion of undying devotion, that, in real life, St. Clair and Florence had split over a decade prior to the events of this film, though they remained friends and professional associates.
With such fine performances (including a scene-stealing role for "Big Bang Theory"'s Simon Helberg (A Serious Man) as Cosme McMoon, Florence's eternally conflicted pianist -- in real life, Jenkins and McMoon had known each other for nearly twenty years prior to their professional collaboration), wonderful production design, pageant-worthy costumes, and competent direction, it's a bit surprising to see Florence Foster Jenkins released in the middle of August, rather than at the end of the year, when it would be in prime consideration as an Academy Award contender. Certainly, Streep's performance is worthy of a nod -- much more so than many of the films she did get nominated for (i.e., The Devil Wears Prada, Into the Woods). Just as it takes a special kind of actress to be able to act poorly and still convince, so too does it take a special kind of singer, and Streep nails Jenkins' lack of talent in a way that allows us to appreciate how bad she is without it coming off as ridiculous to believe -- we hear an actual recording of the real-life Jenkins at the end that shows just how spot-on in being tone-deaf Streep really nails. She sounds less off-key than Edith Bunker singing at the beginning of every episode of "All in the Family", but not much more so.
As with the real Florence Foster Jenkins, who actually had her share of ardent admirers during her heyday (because of her resolve more so than her talent), so too will you likely become a fan of hers for the very same reasons. Even if the mostly delightful film does go astray in a final act that creates a false-feeling climax involving the hiding of a newspaper hatchet piece in ways that strain the semblance of credibility the true story had built up, the winning performances sell the film through most of it, enough to be forgiving of Florence Foster Jenkins, both as a person and as a movie, for not quite living up to potential.
©2016 Vince Leo