Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) – Movie Review
Florence Foster Jenkins
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Nicholas Martin
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg & Rebecca Ferguson
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Release Date: May 6th 2016
So, Meryl Streep is awesome, amirite? It feels like she’s done practically everything that can be done on the big-screen with over 400 award nominations to her name (and counting). It was also recently in films like ‘Mamma Mia!‘, ‘Into The Woods‘ and ‘Ricki and the Flash‘ that we also discovered that she’s a really strong singer because she just wasn’t talented enough it would seem. However, with ‘Florence Foster Jenkins‘ she may have met her match because she will now be portraying the “World’s Worst Singer”.
Now, that might be a rather simplistic tag-line but the the titular Florence Foster Jenkins is an infamous figure in the music industry. A rich New York socialite, Jenkins had a love of music but despite not having the natural talent for opera singing she used her fame and influence to pursue it anyway. It’s a very bitter-sweet true story about aspiration and as a result it would seem that ‘Philomena‘ and ‘The Program‘ director Stephen Frears is a perfect pic. Is this movie able to reach the high notes that Florence Foster Jenkins simply couldn’t perform or should audiences be turned away at the door?
It’s 1944 and Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a wealthy New York socialite who loves operatic music so much that she started the Verdi Club so that herself and her friends could celebrate it. She is also married to actor St. Clair Bayfield (Grant) who has a mistress in Kathleen Weatherley (Ferguson) due to Jenkins contracting Syphilis from her first husband. Jenkins, due to her love of opera decides to pursue singing and hires pianist Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) to accompany her lessons. But despite her absolute lack of talent and the ridiculousness of her persona, nobody seems to have the heart to tell her that she cannot sing despite her plans to perform in public. Will Bayfield and Cosmé be able to protect Florence from the certain criticism she’ll receive or will her show become a disaster?
Normally I’d use this paragraph to talk about the story/narrative elements of the film that worked or didn’t work but since the film wants to put Meryl Streep front and centre, I will do the same. She is a lot of fun in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins‘ and she gives a brilliant performance. You’re shocked, I’m sure. But a lot has got to be said for how she commits to this comical, cartoon character who actually was a real person. In fact, one criticism that could be levelled at the movie is how it brings her more down-to-earth then she actually was. The real life Florence was in the back of a taxi when it was involved in an crash and the accident caused her to scream. When we went home she confirmed (to herself) with a piano that during her scream she reached a high-F note. She was so overjoyed at this that she refused to press charges against the taxi driver and she even sent him a box of expensive cigars. The Florence Foster Jenkins in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins‘ doesn’t nearly approach this level of eccentricity as the real-life Florence Foster Jenkins.
Despite ‘Florence Foster Jenkins‘ being an over-the-top comical character with an obsession with potato-salad, Streep does a lot to humanise her and allow audiences to emphasise with her as she is a rather tortured person in this film. She’s naive in her lack-of-talent but she longs for a love-life despite knowing that due to her illnesses she cannot fulfil her husbands needs and desires. This is a role of polar-opposites where Jenkins has extreme highs and extreme lows and it’s a credit to Streep that she’s able to make both sides convincing and, more importantly cohesive. It’s also incredible that despite us knowing that she is able to sing really well, that she’s able to accurately replicate Jenkins’ lack of talent. It takes true skill to be able to be convincingly bad at something you can actually do well.
Because while Florence is not the “world’s worst singer” she is still unable to actually hit many of the notes. But she’s SO CLOSE to being right. She hits all of the notes except for the ones actually required for the tune. And over the credits actual recordings of the real FFJ are played just to let you know what she was really like and how well Streep replicates her.
But so much attention has been given to Streep that it’s almost possible to forget that there are other actors doing terrific work here. We have Simon Helberg reminding us just how talented actors from “The Big Bang Theory” can actually be when they’re not working on “The Big Bang Theory” and there’s some nice attention to detail with the characterisation of Cosmé McMoon as hints are thrown in as to his post-FFJ career where he enjoyed spectating body-building and became a master chess player. Helberg essentially plays the straight-man of the movie where (at first glance) only he seems to be aware of how terrible FFJ’s singing is and is upfront about it to everyone else except FFJ.
It’s also worth talking about how great Hugh Grant is here as well. He’s made a career of playing impossibly charming, womanising British guys but with ‘Florence Foster Jenkins‘ he does have the charm but it’s in service of trying to put a brave face on everything that Florence is going through. He’s essentially given up his acting career in order to help Florence with her singing and he’s aware that he’s going to dwell in mediocrity because of it yet he loves his wife so much that he’ll do it anyway. It’s a great performance and one of Grant’s best in a long time. It’s just a shame that Streep has overshadowed him so much in the public’s consciousness.
As for the rest of the movie, it kinda feels like the story/screenplay elements are “good enough”. There’s a few witty lines, the singing scenes are frequently entertaining and cringe-worthy and the emotions are strong with this one. However, it feels like the movie is coasting on its premise and strong lead performances. There’s not a lot to be said about the rest of the supporting cast and when we come to what the movie is trying to say, it seems to have no stance on whether or not Florence should have been allowed to sing, whether or not the critics and her husband were right to do what they did or anything approaching analysis on the legacy of Florence Foster Jenkins. Narratively it’s a no-nonsense biopic and while that’s not a huge issue, having seen what director Stephen Frears has done with the story of Philomena Lee or Lance Armstong this comes across as an “off day” for him.
It also seems strange that the ending of the film changes how Florence died (that’s not a spoiler as she was in her 70s when the movie takes place, so of course she died between 1944 and 2016) in order to try and make the ending more bitter-sweet than tragic which could be a reason why the film didn’t want to offer much commentary over the morality of letting someone live inside their own bubble to the detriment of themselves. That could be why the filmmakers wanted to lessen Florence’s eccentricities in this film adaptation. It just feels like the movie is missing lots of dramatic opportunities and decided to settle on being a crowd-pleasing, Meryl Streep comedy-vehicle first and foremost.
However, the film in terms of its production does an effective job of turning London and Liverpool into 1940s New York City. Whether or not this was accomplished through dressing the streets or green-screen, the results are convincing and effective. If there’s anything the Brits know how to do in filmmaking it’s period-settings so you’ll see great attention to detail in Florence’s gorgeous apartment, Cosmé’s tiny apartment in a less maintained area of New York and the brilliant theatre interiors.
The make-up and hair are terrific (seeing the effects of Florence’s syphilis is a particularly effective moment in its understated delivery) and my goodness are those costumes beautifully done. But what would you expect from costume designer Consolata Boyle who did the costumes for Stephen Frears’ ‘Queen‘ in 2006 which earned her an Oscar-nomination. Alexandre Deplat’s music is also enjoyable when it goes into comedy-farce mode but the rest of it, while good, doesn’t have much staying power.
‘Florence Foster Jenkins‘ is a film that leans a little to heavily on its great lead performances, particularly a superb turn from the pretending-not-to-be-talented Meryl Streep (though it’s far from her best work which is more indicative of how great she is to be honest). We also have a brilliant Hugh Grant and entertaining Simon Helberg playing against their considered archetypes. But it’s in favour of a movie that doesn’t really have a lot on its mind despite all the ideas that can be mined from this true story. It seems to be coasting on its on-screen talent to create a crowd-pleasing comedy which is fine, but we all know that almost everyone involved can do better. It’s a well-polished film that didn’t seem to aim for the high notes but it was an enjoyable show nevertheless.
I give ‘Florence Foster Jenkins‘ 3 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 28th Jan 17