FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (2016) review
written by: Nicholas Martin
produced by: Michael Kuhn and Tracey Seaward
directed by: Stephen Frears
rated: PG-13 (for brief suggestive material)
runtime: 110 min.
U.S. release date: August 12, 2016
When I was in high school, I remember a teacher sharing her recent experience as a missionary in Tahiti with a packed auditorium. She spoke about what she taught and the children and families she met while there, but what stood out to me this most – to this day even – was a specific audio recording she played. What was heard was hard to describe and somewhat inaudible. It sounded like a pack of wounded animals or wailing people and had many students laughing, yet there was a passion behind it all. We were told these were villagers singing to God during a worship service and the reason this teacher shared the audio was to show that it doesn’t matter how you sound when you sing from the heart. I thought of this while watching “Florence Foster Jenkins”.
Indeed, American socialite and amateur opera soprano Florence Foster Jenkins had a voice that made Edith Bunker’s warbling sound like Édith Piaf. She sounded awful and it was funny – for a little while and to those who didn’t know her – but that’s not why screenwriter Nicholas Martin and director Stephen Frears (“The Queen” and “Philomena”) collaborated on this sappy and sweet biopic. There’s actually a touching story about loyalty, acceptance and following your dreams here, featuring heartfelt performances and a reminder why we shouldn’t take a living legend for granted.
In 1944 Manhattan, wealthy heiress Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) worked hard to support the arts by organizing clubs for the elite that emphasized local classical and opera acts. She and her second husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), himself a British stage actor who never quite cut it, would throw parties and benefits to support her passion where her celebrity would flourish. Florence used to teach music, play piano and sing, but now, in her elder years, all she feels she can physically do is sing – except she has no rhythm, horrible pitch, and is tone-deaf, making her singing voice abhorrent to all.
But that’s unknown to her and when the sixtysomething (she was actually in her 70s, but Streep is in her 60s) Florence decides to give it another go, her doting husband hires a prominent vocal instructor, Carlo Edwards (David Haig) to coach her and a young and overwhelmed pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her. Thrilled with these sessions, Florence decides to throw a small ticketed concert for her friends and peers, which sends St. Clair tirelessly working as her manager to screen who receives tickets, bribe critics and make certain all seats are filled, in order to ensure his wife feels encouraged and important. Feeling more confident, Florence records a record unbeknownst to St. Clair and it becomes a hit on the radio and soon schedules a performance at Carnegie Hall, giving away tickets to local soldiers. While Florence prepares for the big event, St. Clair and do what they can to protect her from the truth as their struggle to please Florence becomes more and more challenging.
It takes a gifted performer to effectively convince “Florence Foster Jenkins” viewers that what they are hearing is outrageously awful. You may think that anyone can sing bad, but the truth is, it requires an actor who knows how to sing well to convincingly hit ear-splitting notes. Streep has proven she can sing – just look at “Mamma Mia!”, “Prairie Home Companion”, “Into the Woods” and last year’s “Ricki and the Flash” as reminders – so, she has that down, but what she also successfully conveys here is a genuine sincerity and aching naivety to the titular role. Unsurprisingly, Streep exudes tremendous comic timing here, especially when she relies on body language and expressions for nuance, but she’s not playing for laughs here. The more we get to know Florence, the more her tragic past is hinted at, which has preventing her from fully living out her passion. She may be a joke who hear her singing, but to connect Florence to viewers, Streep plays the character straight since Florence isn’t in on the joke. It’s what keeps this that’s joyous and vulnerable woman from coming across as a buffoon.
Hugh Grant definitely hasn’t been in as many films as he was in the 90s, so it’s understandable for many to assume he’s taken something of a break, but he was in last summer’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, so he must be more selective with his material, I guess. The story in “Florence Foster Jenkins” is as much Grant’s St. Clair Bayfield’s story as it is Jenkins and Grant has much to work with here in this role. It requires the charm and sophistication Grant as given past characters, but is also one with conflicting emotions and a surprisingly vivacious dance number that the actor nails.
As period film has a dramatic thread throughout, what it mostly provides is laughs that are primarily generated by the response people have to Florence’s singing. The first response that stands out comes from Helberg’s McMoon, a meek yet ambitious young pianist who fears his involvement with Florence will tarnish the reputation he is trying to build within the arts community. Helberg, who brought his piano skills to the role, plays a gateway character, allowing the audience to be introduced to Florence’s world just as his character is. He’s wide-eyed, but also aghast at how St. Clair and everyone around Florence can just let her sing to her heart’s content, without telling her she’s awful. Eventually, he understands this though, once he comes to respect and admire Florence’s brazen abandon toward singing and performing in front of a live audience.
The characterization of McMoon has the most prominent story arc of the movie and Helberg’s performance offers a good balance of physical comedy and a natural progression of appreciation and respect for both Florence and St. Clair as confusing as they both seem to him. Known for his work on “The Big Bang Theory” (a show I’ve never watched), I found Helberg to be quite mesmerizing and easily comparable to silent stars such as Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, yet the sounds he omits, outside of actual words, are quite hilarious. I can’t help but think that if Streep will undoubtedly get another Oscar nomination, there’s no reason why Helberg couldn’t. If anything, this role will at least put the talented actor on a wider radar.
The tone of “Florence Foster Jenkins” is light and thankfully avoids the saccharine temptation one would expect from such a story. Frears revels in the screenplay Nicholas Martin (a BBC TV mainstay) provides, which slowly unveils the complicated details and intricacies of Florence’s marriage to St. Clair and offers identifiable arcs for St. Clair and Cosmé – since Florence remains who she is, which is kind of the essence of her character. It’s revealed she contracted syphilis from her first husband and has been dealing with the illness since, which has led the devoted St. Clair to take up a mistress in bohemian actress, Kathleen (the great Rebecca Ferguson, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation“), with whom he shares an apartment, away from his aristocratic home with Florence. This is something we gather Florence is aware of and understands, yet is no less pained by. It appears they share both a “common law” and open marriage, something which strains all involved – mostly the loyal St. Clair, who loves both women, but would literally do anything to protect Florence’s honor and reputation, even at the cost of his relationship with Kathleen.
There are many “take aways” to glean from “Florence Foster Jenkins” as we follow a woman resiliently chasing her dream. One of which is how “the intent matters more than the result”, which is supported by the great last line that Florence utters (it’s so good I won’t give it away). But, what the movie mostly found a way to do is remind me the importance of putting myself in someone else’s shoes – someone I might have otherwise scoffed at. For those who already knew about Jenkins, they may be aware that the record producers and concertgoers made a continuous habit out of making fun of her, but having no knowledge of Florence served to my benefit since I was free of any preconceived notions of who she was or what she was known for. Instead, I wound up commending the bravery and courage it took to stand in front of a live audience and sing to her heart’s content.
I saw this movie in a packed classic old theatre. I heard audible laughs throughout from an audience that was clearly appreciative of the film and completely into it. That’ll go down as one of the more delightful movie-going experiences of the year.
There will be a temptation amongst critics and moviegoers to label this movie as “Oscar bait” or dismiss it as “yet another biopic” and that would be unfortunate since “Florence Foster Jenkins” offers something rare – an appealing and genuine movie for anyone. In a summer rife with disappointing options from major studios, this is indeed a sweet-sounding delight.