FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allen Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig
MPAA Rating: (for brief suggestive material)
Running Time: 1:50
Release Date: 8/12/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 12, 2016
Money cannot buy talent, but it can buy a receptive audience, some good press, and a long line of sycophants, who are more than happy to tell someone with money that the person has talent, hoping that maybe some of that money will come their way. That combination, Florence Foster Jenkins suggests, is how the eponymous, wealthy socialite went as long as she did under the impression that she actually could sing well.
"The worst singer in the world," asks a headline after she performs at Carnegie Hall in 1944, having paid to rent the space and donating a thousand tickets to World War II veterans. It's probably an inaccurate description, if only because there were, are, and will be worse singers than her. They just didn't, don't, and won't have the means to place themselves in such a position of presumed prestige. Let's call it inaccurate but fair.
The movie itself is more than a bit indecisive on the subject of Jenkins. She's a joke, of course, because there's no other way that her singing, taken at face value, could be evaluated. We're supposed to laugh—and do—at the moments in which Florence, with all sincerity, takes to butchering an aria or a popular song with piercing shrieks and trills that sound uncannily like a screeching chimpanzee.
The reactions of those around her are even more amusing than the singing itself. Her devoted husband looks on with a polite smile. Her well-paid instructor barks advice that suggests there's some kind of technique to slightly modify. Her accompanist simply stops playing the piano and looks up in dumbfounded shock. Surely, the pianist must be thinking, his ears do not deceive him. These other two men must hear it, too. Neither of the other men gives away the notion that Florence is terrible, so he goes along with it, holding back his honest reaction until he looks and sounds slightly deranged on the elevator, trying and failing to stifle his laughter.
Here, Florence is played by Meryl Streep as a woman without a clue about her lack of talent. Hugh Grant plays her doting second husband St. Clair Bayfield, who is equally oblivious in regards to his own capabilities. He was a stage actor for some time. His current performances are relegated to reciting Shakespearean soliloquies in variety shows hosted by the music club that his wife founded. Florence later says that her husband is a good, not great, actor and that she often hid some of the more unfavorable reviews.
For his part, St. Clair keeps up his wife's notices by paying off reporters at less-renowned publications and refusing recital tickets to any legitimate journalist. He also monitors Florence's performances for any signs of chuckling and boots anyone caught in the act. The people who have heard Florence sing are either too polite, too in need of her patronage, or too hard-of-hearing to say anything negative about her "singing."
The charade, we suppose, is harmless, and the central point of the screenplay by Nicholas Martin is that St. Clair is trying to protect his wife from any harm that might come from any honest reaction. The reason for such protection is that Florence contracted syphilis from her first husband, whom she married about 50 years ago at the age of 18. Her health has been a long-standing concern, and the jolt of realizing that her lifelong passion is a farce could be fatal.
The couple's relationship is the movie's most appealing element, if only because Streep and Grant are so effective at communicating the unquestioning devotion of these two characters to each other. It comes across stronger on St. Clair's side, although that might be Martin compensating for a subplot involving the character's affair with Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), who lives in St. Clair's apartment. St. Clair insists to Florence's pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) that he and Florence have an "understanding," since they abstain from sex on account of her illness. That doesn't prevent a scene of minor farce involving St. Clair and Cosme hiding Kathleen and another woman when Florence arrives at the apartment unannounced. Whatever "understanding" the couple has, it probably doesn't include sexual promiscuity.
It's unclear and doesn't go anywhere, because Martin and director Stephen Frears are more interested in the broad, comic elements of this story than anything else. When it tries to do more, the movie simply presents Florence as a delicate flower of a vaguely tragic, nearly delusional heroine, whose ambitions far outreach her abilities (The way it's presented here, the real tragedy is not that she's an atrocious singer but that no one is willing even to suggest that fact to her). Even then, Martin's screenplay falls short, because Florence's story becomes one of rather uninspiring triumph. Yes, she's awful, but at least she tries. Most people, given the "correct" way of looking at her, are willing to give her that.
This ultimately means that Jenkins' story doesn't mean much of anything here. The movie works for a while as a light piece of comedy, but surely, given how serious it eventually becomes, the movie is attempting more than that. Florence Foster Jenkins, like those overly sympathetic audiences, is too courteous to really make Florence a joke, and it's too sentimental to fully commit to finding any real sense of tragedy in this story.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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