The real-life Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy New York socialite and patron of the arts in the early 20th century, was a terrible singer. That much we know for sure. The historical record, which includes several professional recordings of her attempts to sing arias from various operas, attests to that fact. However, what is not known for sure, and is a point of some contention among the historians who know who Florence Foster Jenkins was, is whether or not she knew she was a terrible singer. Had she simply convinced herself that she was capable of maintaining the pitch, rhythm, and intonation required of a soprano despite all aural evidence to the contrary, or was it an elaborate ruse in which she was, for lack of a better phrase, in on the joke?Stephen Frearss Florence Foster Jenkins, which was written by TV scribe Nicholas Martin, suggests the former, that she was a blissfully deluded soul who allowed the carefully chosen words of those around her to support her belief that she was, in fact, a fantastic singer. As played with wonderfully credulous charm and a sweet trill of a voice by Oscar perennial Meryl Streep, Florence is impossible not to like, although the films greatest trick is that is gets us to empathize with her without pitying her, for she is arguably a deeply pitiable character. Yet, Streeps take on her is so assured that we cant help but admire her determination and panache, even as it makes her a fool in the eyes of others. Throughout her career as a singer, she performed only in small venues to select, hand-picked audiences, mostly comprised of members of the Verdi Club, a social organization she founded to help promote opera (at the beginning of the film we see her acting in one of the clubs performances in various tableaux, which demonstrates her penchant for flamboyant drama and love of costumes). Florences chief enabler was her husband, a former Shakespearean actor named St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a man nearly a decade her junior who was not, legally speaking, her husband. While he spent the entirety of his days with her, supporting her musical exploits and managing her career with the utmost care toward maintaining the illusion of talent, at night St. Clair left the hotel where Florence lived and returned to an apartment he shared with his much younger girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). Like Florences awareness or lack thereof regarding her musical ability, it is never completely clear how much she knew about St. Clairs activities after he left her room, although there is a lengthy comical sequence in which he must quickly cover up that he had thrown a raucous party the night before and had been lying naked in bed with Kathleen when Florence shows up unannounced. Once again, there are subtle suggestions that Florence was aware of what was going on, although she appears to be perfectly daft. Amazingly, St. Clairs double life does little to undercut his obvious affection for Florence and absolute dedication to her, and the scenes between Grant and Streep have a touching quality that too many on-screen romances lack. The films other major character is Cosm McMoon (Simon Helberg), a young pianist Florence hires as her accompanist. Concerned about his future career, he resists playing for her once he discovers (in one of the films funniest moments) what an atrocious singer she is; yet, like the rest of us, he is eventually drawn in by Florences considerable charm and lust for life, as well as her unceasing love of music. A lesser film would have turned Florence into a joke, but Frears (Philomena, The Queen) is too smart to give in to easy temptation, and he makes Florence Foster Jenkins a semi-comical, but ultimately touching portrait of someone who is truly in love with art. Florence may have been an awful singer, but she loved music all the same and did much to promote it throughout her life (she says at one point with great power, music has been, and is, my life.) When the film builds to a climax in which Florence is to sing before a packed audience at Carnegie Hall that includes critics who are not willing to indulge the fantasy of her competence, there is no suspense as to the outcomewe know the performance will be awfulbut there is great tension as to whether St. Clair will be able to hide from her the next mornings scathing reviews (his role, after all, has been to keep the mockers and scoffers at bay for the past 25 years). This great effort is treated with a comical touch as he rushes out into the street to buy up all the copies of the newspaper from all the newsstands around her hotel, but it ultimately becomes a moment of reckoning, in which Florences delusion is shattered, but not necessarily her spirit. While Florence could be dismissed as an example of runaway economic privilege (she inherited all of her money), the film does enough to emphasize her humanity that she becomes neither an outright joke nor an object of ideological scorn, but rather a woman who loved music and would do anything to be a part of it.
Copyright 2016 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3)
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