Wednesday, September 7, 2016


The history books have always provided plenty of great material for cinema to find stories to tell. Some of the best ones are the more obscure moments and unknown people from the past, and perhaps none more obscure, or odd, than the story of Florence Foster Jenkins.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is a 1940’s New York City socialite who uses her wealth to further her singing career, despite the fact that she is a terrible singer. Her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), fearing for Florence’s failing health, uses his influence to shield her from bad reviews from the press and packs venues only with close acquaintances. When Florence decides that she is ready to perform at the famed Carnegie Hall with her new pianist Mr. McMoon (Simon Helberg), St. Clair realizes this is one performance that he can’t control.
The nice way to put it is, Florence Foster Jenkins had a lot more ambition and passion for her singing than she had talent. She sounded worse than pigs being slaughtered, and a great deal of FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS deals with just how important music is to Florence’s health, and the efforts that her husband St. Clair takes to insulate her from bad reviews from the press and the public. Director Stephen Frears takes what could have easily been a one-note comedy routine and finds a lot of heart to play with, as Florence is so passionate about her singing and St. Clair is deeply devoted to her health and happiness…the film becomes a version of The Little Engine That Couldn’t, coupled with a love story, and it isn’t long before we find ourselves hoping that Florence will at least hit a few good notes when she takes the big stage.  
Taking things a step further, St. Clair himself isn’t without his own storylines. Despite being devoted to Florence, he carries on an affair with Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), and often plays a game of cat-and-mouse concealing it from Florence. It makes for a lightly complicated love triangle and plenty of layers for the character. Meanwhile, Mr. McMoon, who serves as the eyes and ears of the audience, has to wrestle with finally reaching the prestigious stage of Carnegie Hall with the world’s worst singer. There’s fine character work at play here, and everyone has something important to overcome.
Director Stephen Frears keeps the pacing and the mood very light and fun. The moments when we have to endure Florence’s awful singing are hilarious as the characters react, and try to hide reactions. At the same time though, Frears generates a healthy amount of pity for the woman, who may or may not be aware of how bad she really was. 1940’s New York City is shown in small glimpses, and seems to lack any sweeping shots of the city…which adds to the intimacy that’s going on but makes the film feel very small-screen.
Meryl Streep puts on an unforgettable performance as Florence. Having acted in musicals on film before, the territory was familiar for her, but to actually sing way-out-of-key and do it badly was a tall order…and she does it perfectly. The performance sequences are gut-busting funny, and Streep counters every laugh with a lot of emotion during the quiet moments. Simon Helberg is equally funny, and Hugh Grant turns in a head-turning performance and signals his new stature as a British actor with age and experience.
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS doesn’t follow the old music-biopic template, and seems to focus more on the efforts of St. Clair to shield Florence from the outside critical world than on the character whose name is on the title of the film. It’s different and it’s a bit hokey in places, but when the old question arises of what is art and who gets to say if it is or not comes around, there is no better place to look for answers than this little-known and seldom talked-about story.

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