FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, and John Kavanagh. Directed by Stephen Frears. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language). 110 min.
This drama-comedy is set in New York in the 1940s, and is based factually on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy socialite, who dreamed of becoming an Opera singer, and who was notorious for her lack of ability to sing in tune. The film is an American version of the French movie, "Marguerite", which is on simultaneous release in Australia.
Meryl Streep gives an impressive performance of a soprano, who is utterly impervious to her limitations as a singer, and endures a level of mockery that she constantly misinterprets. Jenkins was a standing joke among "true" music lovers, who mocked her artistry and music ability, but who nevertheless admired her courage. Jenkins' ambition to be an Opera singer culminated in a packed-out performance at Carnegie Hall in 1944, where she literally brought her way onto its stage with thousands of free tickets donated to her favourite army cause. She sang terribly, and the audience clapped.
All the time, Florence Jenkins believed she had talent, and no one told her otherwise until the Carnegie reviews became public to the world. A major critic's devastating words were published for everyone to see, and she died shortly after seeing them. Her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), like others who admired her "fidelity and courage", were convinced she died of a broken heart. Even her hired accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), and famous voice coach Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh), were caught up in the pretence that Jenkins had talent, until the sad truth could no longer be hidden.
The Director of the film, Stephen Frears, tackles Jenkins' life by tugging obviously at the heart strings, and Meryl Streep delivers a decidedly quirky performance as Florence Jenkins. In his direction, Frears is wholly sympathetic to Jenkins' delusion that she can delight audiences without showing any semblance of musical artistry, and as a result he frequently uses vaudeville, theatrical scenarios designed to drive his point home. This is a film that is much more broadly comic than "Marguerite", and less a social, satirical commentary on the times. Streep makes Jenkins a comic disaster, but her performance paints Jenkins positively. It is a portrayal that is amusing, but not one that is deeply dramatic. Frot painted Jenkins as a tragic person, caught up pathetically in the mix of her emotions.
Frear's film has a lightness of touch, and rarely goes underneath that touch to confront, explain or explore the dynamics of what is happening to the characters he introduces. His version of Jenkins is entertaining, but more capricious than how Xavier Giannoli directed "Marguerite".
Hugh Grant's performance as Jenkins' supportive husband is excellent, but we are kept a little in the dark as to what his character really feels. We know that he makes every effort he can to protect his wife, and to maintain the illusion, but we also know that he chose to live with another woman (Rebecca Ferguson), which renders his attachment to Jenkins as ambiguous. On the technical side, the sets and costume designs capture the period well, and the film's photography is visually very attractive.
Florence Foster Jenkins was well known as a famous, terrible Opera singer, perhaps the worst that recorded music has ever known. One is tempted to ask what actress best deserves recognition for exploring her undeniable fame on the cinema screen? Frot has the equivalent of an Oscar already in hand from France as "Best Actress" for her portrayal of Jenkins. Streep will test the same waters shortly, when Oscar-time comes around soon in America.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Entertainment One Films
Released May 5th., 2016