Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster JenkinsSynopsis: The true story of Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), the legendary New York heiress and socialite who obsessively pursued her dream of becoming a great opera singer. The voice she heard in her head was beautiful, but to everyone else it was hilariously awful.

Her husband and manager, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) an aristocratic English actor, was determined to protect his beloved Florence from the truth. But when Florence decided to give a public concert at Carnegie Hall in 1944, St Clair knew he faced his greatest challenge.

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Florence Foster Jenkins 7.25

eyelights: Meryl Streep. Hugh Grant.
eyesores: the picture’s one-note joke.

“People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ is a 2016 motion picture by Stephen Frears. Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg, it  tells the story of American heiress and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, who became renowned in the early 20th century for indulging in lavish concert performances though she had no singing ability.

When I saw the trailer at the cinema, I was of two minds about it: On the one hand, I felt that the core idea of a deluded singer who can’t sing was rather funny. On the other, however, I couldn’t help but wonder where the picture could take us beyond its one-note joke. It really didn’t appear to have much else going for it.

Sadly, that impression proved prescient.

Although ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ is a well-constructed picture driven by superb performances, it felt to me like it kept revisiting the same gimmick over and over again: Florence would perform with all the exuberance of an eager three-year-old, to the groans of many, while her husband ensured that her illusion wasn’t shattered.

…time and time and time again.

The character of Jenkins is barely explored beyond that: She was married very young, against her father’s wishes (which nearly lost her his fortune), suffered from syphilis for an astonishing 50 years, had an open marriage with St. Clair, her devoted husband, and had grand aspirations. Oh, and she had not an ounce of talent.

Or taste.

And that’s pretty much all that we get out of ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’. The character is otherwise merely a buffoon of the variety that naturally elicits derision; she doesn’t so much to endear the audience to her as garner sympathy due to her failing health and her egotist but good intentions. She is a joke, not a fully-fleshed person.

You would get more out of reading her Wikipedia page.

In that sense, Streep’s performance is perfect: she plays up every expression for comic effect, eschewing realism to maximize the humour in each moment. But it’s her singing which is the most remarkable: She sung all her own parts, and so outrageously that it was painful to hear. And deeply hilarious, like a cartoon trainwreck.

St. Clair came off slightly more sympathetic, though we learn very little about him other than the fact that he spent his days utterly devoted to Florence and her every whim – and then go to his apartment to spend the night with his girlfriend after Florence went to bed. His unflappable focus and affection earns him much respect.

Hugh Grant was rather good in the part, playing it straight and allowing Streep to get the laughs. He carried himself with all the propriety of a Patrick McGoohan, adding a touch of panache and allowing layers of internalization to rise to the surface. Gone was the neurotic stammering of old, replaced by a subtlety and poise.

Cosmé McMoon was a young pianist that Jenkins hired to accompany her. His main role in the picture is to react comically to his employer’s abhorrent performances, cringing, wincing, rolling his eyes and, when alone, laughing derisively. As with Jenkins, his character is barely explored and he remained a frequently repeated one-note joke.

Simon Helberg was decent in the part, but he played McMoon with a softness and timidity that I found slightly irritating; for some reason, it felt unnatural to me so I was seeing a performance every time he was on screen. Still, he did get the laughs without fail and he was a good match-up with Streep’s own caricature.

I just wish that the picture’s laughs came from other source than Jenkins’ singing (in)ability. Pretty much all of the humour consisted of her screeching, the endless stream of reaction shots, or even the abuse of recording equipment; there was precious little punchy dialogue and few other sequences that brought the house down.

Frankly, I couldn’t help but feel that ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ could have been told in a third of its time. While I laughed each time that Jenkins was on, it was rather repetitive. If not for Streep’s astonishing vocal skills and comic timing, as well as the gorgeous period setting, it might have made for an insufferable viewing.

In any event, I may someday see it again.

…but I certainly won’t be buying the soundtrack anytime soon.

Date of viewing: August 20, 2016

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