'Florence Foster Jenkins'
Florence Foster Jenkins was a horrible singer. One of the worst who ever opened her mouth and let out noises. But she didn’t know that and everyone around her (including a few folks at recording studios) didn’t think it was necessary to pass along that information. As a result, she’s become something of an icon of irony over the years, a woman with a terrible voice cranking out some of the most beautiful and complex songs ever written. A few documentaries, plays and movies have been dedicated to Jenkins’ delusional ways over the years. This is the latest, and given that Jenkins is portrayed by Meryl Streep this time, it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that it’s probably the best of the bunch.
We meet Streep’s Ms. Jenkins at a concert hall doing her embarrassing thing. The crowd eats it up with thunderous applause. You see, Jenkins’ latest husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), has ensured through a careful invitation process (involving greased palms) that everyone present treats it like a spectacular show. It’s what he does. His life is essentially dedicated to perpetuating Jenkins’ delusion. As you might expect, his deceptive ways extend to living with his own girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson) in a separate apartment.
Even so, there’s happiness between himself and his keeper, and not just because of all the lies. She’s also rather sweet. When Jenkins hires on a new pianist (Simon Helberg) to keep the ridiculous façade alive, he’s politely charmed into the fold as well. In fact, Jenkins’ support system is so strong that she decides to start recording her own songs and even rents out Carnegie Hall for a massive showcase for departing WWII troops. That’s far too large of a showcase for Bayfield to fill with paid-off patrons. This is going to get a bit tricky.
The movie is a sumptuously mounted period bio-pic with all the trimmings and only a delightfully ironic subject to separate it from the normal dreary pack. Streep is absolutely wonderful in the title role. They say it takes a talented actor to sing or act badly on film yet do it well, and Streep sure proves that to be true. Her hoots and hollers in the musical sequences never cease to get big chuckles. Around those scenes, she creates such a warm and layered character with a hidden tragic core that it’s hard not to fall for Streep’s magic. It’s a wonderful performance from the actress, and is thankfully unencumbered by the tiresome self-importance of Oscar fluff that she often finds herself trapped in.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Hugh Grant proves to be her match. He’s given a role perfectly suited to his talents. He gets to do the mumbly, stumbly charmer routine that made him the face of so many rom-coms, while also adding layers of bitter deception and con artist glee to spice it up. It’s a tricky part that could too easily have become an unintentional villain, but Grant has the chops, charm and smarm to find ways to make that dastardly husband likeable. It’s a joy to watch him spar with Streep on screen.
Director Stephen Frears always works wonderfully with his casts. Here, he surrounds the central duo with a variety of character actors who ensure that even the smallest role gets a memorable grace note. The filmmaker mounts it all with professional precision, filling the screen with period details yet without ever detracting from the strong premise by getting lost in costume pageantry. ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ is a delightful concept for an amusingly unheroic bio-pic with a surprising amount of warmth. Frears was a wise choice to direct, as he has a certain dark British wit necessary for the bitter laughs early on, as well as a heart big enough to make the audience fall for Mrs. Jenkins in the end.
That’s the charm of ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’. It’s very similar to Tim Burton’s masterful ‘Ed Wood’ in that the filmmakers deeply love their subject even more than they love laughing at her. Jenkins is presented as an irrepressible spirit with love for everyone around her and a level of irrational self-confidence that’s hard not to be seduced by. In an age where so many sadly untalented folks find themselves instant celebrities for embarrassing themselves on televised talent shows, this film serves as an ode to having the confidence to be yourself no matter how ridiculous that might seem.
And hey, people do still remember this traditionally untalented singer years after her revered contemporaries have been forgotten. That must count for something.