Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
The inspiring true story of the world’s worst singer.
At the midway point of director Stephen Frears’ newest biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins, I could have sworn that I was watching a silly postwar studio comedy — yep folks, this true story is actually that zany! Based on the much-loved New York heiress who obsessively followed her dream of becoming a famous singer (despite her lack of talent), Frears’ newest picture plays out like a variation of The Emperor’s New Clothes — with everyone onscreen aware of the absurdity of their situation, too afraid of spoiling the fun by shattering the façade. Witty, stirring and mushily heartwarming, this tale about love, music and the pursuit of dreams is sure to please.
The picture opens in 1944, where viewers meet aging socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), a lover of classical music and founder of the refined Verdi Club, where she and her aristocratic second husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), put on outrageous tableaux vivants — starring Madame Florence of course — for New York’s most privileged citizens. After attending Carnegie Hall to hear the celebrated soprano Lily Pons (Aida Garifullina) live in concert, Florence decides to start singing again, taking lessons from the touchy-feely vocal coach Carlo Edwards (David Haig), with the ever-reliable Bayfield encouraging his darling.
However, when struggling pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), is hired to provide accompaniment, he realizes that although Madame Florence considers herself a vocal sensation, she can barely hold a tune, lacks rhythm, and performs with aberrant pronunciation. With friends and colleagues turning a blind eye to Florence’s incompetent operatic abilities for cash or opportunity, the rookie musician apprehensively accepts the gig. Just as puzzling for McMoon is Jenkins and Bayfield’s unusual romantic arrangement. You see, while Bayfield is married to the titular character, he lives with his mistress, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), in an apartment downtown. Strange huh? Nonetheless, McMoon plays this tune — both the high notes and lows — until Florence decides to perform at Carnegie Hall, giving thousands of tickets away to returning war veterans. Now, with the looming concert (which threatens to uncover Jenkins’ private embarrassment), both Bayfield and McMoon have a potential crisis to evade, as the happy bubble they’ve shaped for Madame faces collapse.
The final chapter in acclaimed director Stephen Frears’ unofficial trilogy about resilient women — on the back of 2006’s The Queen and 2013’s Philomena — Florence Foster Jenkins hits all the right notes thanks to a winning cast worth singing about. Having portrayed an astonishing array of characters in her 40 odd years of acting, Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada (2006), brings Madame Florence to life in an amusing hybrid that’s part highbrow prima donna, part bouncy school-girl, the 66-year-old actress gleefully shredding harmonies whilst delivering her warmest (and most vulnerable) performance in quite some time. Playing alongside Streep is the always-charming Hugh Grant, About a Boy (2002), who also excels as St. Clair Bayfield, a failed Shakespearean thespian and Jenkins’ manager. Shielding his beloved from criticism and ridicule, it’s Bayfield’s job to zip about town and ensure that only those who will court and flatter the deluded diva catch her act, filtering individuals from the general public and various music societies in the process. Here Grant shimmers with buoyancy and wit, bringing the pair’s fluffy but asexual relationship to life, Bayfield’s un-cynical support and protection working as the tune’s soprano.
Along for the increasingly jerky ride is Simon Helberg from The Big Gang Theory (2007) who does a ripper job as the cowardly pianist Cosmé McMoon, Helberg holding his own alongside the two starring heavyweights, whereas the striking Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), brings her usual flair to the minor role of Kathleen.
With the recent French flick Marguerite (2015) loosely inspired by the life and career of Jenkins, the screenplay for Florence Foster Jenkins, written by former television writer Nicholas Martin, sticks closer to the facts, highlighting the dame’s love for music, the passion that ultimately kept her alive — Jenkins contracted syphilis from her womanizing first husband, Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins, which she battled all her life. The decorative production — with meticulously detailed costumes by Consolata Boyle, The Iron Lady (2011), and doily covered sets by production designer Alan MacDonald, The Queen (2006) — aids the narrative (a joke about some antique chairs is a winner), whilst the layered score by Alexandre Desplat, The King’s Speech (2010), is crackling and fun.
Concluding in a sentimental dreamlike reverie, one that sees the tone-deaf soprano perform well in concert, Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins is a funny, touching and heartbreaking tribute to a tragic real-figure and those who swallowed their pride for the sake of prominence. Speaking volumes about mankind’s desire to break free from the shackles of mediocrity, I wasn’t sure whether I should be laughing ‘with’ or ‘at’ poor old Florence. In any case, Hollywood loves an underdog!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Florence Foster Jenkins is released through eOne Films Australia