Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
Dir: Stephen Frears
It’s a story that has inspired works of fiction but here we get the real tale of a truly lovable if somewhat eccentric woman who pursued her dream.
Based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), a New York socialite who in the 1940’s had aspirations of being an opera singer despite lacking the required singing ability.
A french film called ‘Marguerite’ was released in 2015, loosely based on the same story but with a fictional character, now we get the original story here as it’s so interesting in itself. It’s an inspirational tale of pursuing a dream against all obstacles, even insurmountable ones. When we are so used to seeing ‘talent show’ contestants who really lack talent, aired for our amusement, this takes a better view, not presenting her as deluded or crazy, just more likely unable to hear exactly what everyone else was hearing.
While there’s a tricky line to be walked between laughing with her or at her, thankfully I felt that the film gets it about right. There are moments you can’t help laughing at her singing, never though did I feel it was being prompted to do so in a hurtful way, more that it’s unavoidable as the sound is so funny. Key to this working so well is the central character and her depiction.
In the central role of course is Meryl Streep, what more need I say? She does seem to have the wonderful ability to take on almost any character she’s cast as and make it seem like she was perfect casting. Known for some beautiful vocal performances in films such as ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Into the Woods‘, it can’t have been easy for her to imitate Florence’s unique singing style, but she does and she gets it absolutely perfect, as proven by listening to some of the real recording. Florence makes quite an entrance, right from the intentionally funny introduction she’s presented as a lovable character, happy to get stuck in with supporting ‘the arts’ any way she can, so immediately endears herself to the audience, both the ones on screen and at home.
She may be misguided, as may her friends but mostly their hearts are in the right place. People tell her things such as ‘there’s work to be done but you’ve never sounded better’ and other expressions that dodge the truth, though very few seem to be doing so for reasons other than politeness and kindness. The characters whose motives are purely financial or who seem set to cause hurt are portrayed in a negative light, reinforcing the general sentiment that she is doing no harm so why not support her. There’s also a little developed about her health and history before the point we meet her with the film which is an interesting but sad story, indicating that the reason her music is so supported by her loved ones is that it seems to be what keeps her going. This is most put to the test when she’s performing to crowds, starting relatively small but eventually making her dream come true by booking Carnegie hall.
Excellent casting continues with Hugh Grant who plays St. Clair Bayfield who was Florence’s (possibly common-law) husband and is an interesting character. He’s very supportive and a tender gentleman but there’s also far greater complexity than I knew before seeing the film, which rather than being hinted at or alluded to as a mystery, is shown early on and then developed a little through the film. Grant plays the role well, being that Bayfield is described as an ‘English gent’ kind of man the casting fits perfectly, believable as a supportive husband with secrets.
Simon Helberg (better known as Wolowitz from ‘The Big Bang Theory’) is truly excellent as Florence’s pianist and friend Cosmé McMoon. Despite not getting top billing on most posters, with that going just to Streep and Grant, his role is major and key. He’s there for the first scene featuring Florence’s singing, we the audience hear her as he does for the first time and his face says it all. Helberg is wonderful throughout, while his character is quite timid his role is important to her both as a performer and a friend. Also, I think the character is essentially our guide through the story, he’s brought into Florence’s life not far into the film, hears her sing for the first time that we do, then stays with her through the rest of the film, learning about her and Bayfield’s lives as we do, even asking the questions we as an audience are wondering. It’s a shame that Simon Helberg isn’t getting quite the same level of awards recognition as the other two leads because it wouldn’t be the same film without him in the role, helping gauge the tone for us as he does.
Right from the start of the film it’s clear that director Stephen Frears loves this era and setting, 1944 New York, with the opening titles being very much in keeping with the time. Frears does seem to have a good track record with making films that garner much praise both critically and from audiences. I really enjoyed ‘Philomena‘ a couple of years ago, and I have a warm memory of him visiting my town to speak at a small student film festival, just as ‘The Queen’ was being elevated from a ‘TV movie’ to awards frontrunner. His direction here is nothing distinctive, the film doesn’t try to stand out as anything stunningly inventive, his focus is on telling the story and handling the characters well, which I’d say he has done.
I’m not sure we completely get to understand the full details of the central relationship between Florence and St. Clair Bayfield, with certain things they say and do being slightly incongruous. I know that’s partly the point but it left me a little undecided on how I felt about some characters, especially him. There’s also a little licence taken with certain events in exactly when and how they happen in relation to each other, though it’s clearly done to heighten dramatic effect and doesn’t completely undermine the essential truths of the account.
I spoilt the film a little for myself by looking something up online for clarity and accidentally revealing another key piece of information the film hadn’t yet gotten to. Serves me right for using my phone while watching a film. I’d recommend not making the same mistake.
It’s a lovely film that benefits greatly from the ideal fit of the cast with these memorable characters. While I don’t think it’s going to stand out as one of the greatest films in years, it’s hugely enjoyable and uplifting and I enjoyed the time I spent getting to know Florence.
‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ was nominated for four Golden Globes, including ‘Best Comedy or Musical’ and nominations for each of the three main roles although it won none on the night. It has now been nominated for four BAFTAs including ‘Best Lead Actress’ and ‘Best Lead Actor’, suggesting it has a good chance of going on to gain at least a couple of Academy Award nominations next week though I think better films will win the trophies in the end.