Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
dir. Stephen Frears
written by: Nicholas Martin
starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda
3.25 out of 4 stars
It was a matter of time before Meryl Streep and Stephen Frears worked together. Frears has directed great modern actresses from conniving Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons to conniving Anjelica Huston in The Grifters to Dames Dench and Mirren in much less conniving roles. Finally work with the real queen of actresses, Frears and the incomparably versatile Streep have teamed for Florence Foster Jenkins, a comedy surrounding the short lived fame of a wealthy aspiring opera singer with a tragic voice.
With the same story as the French award-winning film Marguerite, Frear’s film more closely follows the real life story of the wealthy musical philanthropist. During World War II, the caring woman, stricken by syphilis, dutifully practices her art, attended to by her husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), between visits with his platonic mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). When young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) takes on the overwhelming chore of accompanying her performances, he finds that her concert aspirations may be the catalyst (of destruction?) for his career.
Hugh Grant and Simon Helburg make outstanding showings as the men in Florence’s life. Grant is likable as usual, but with a deep understanding of his love for his wife. Despite his affair, he knows where his affections and stability, both domestic and financial, lie. Grant encourages and guards his limited wife, striving to make her as happy as he is comfortable. Managing his traditionally distasteful behavior, Grant presents a man in a unique relationship, one that exists still in marginally accepted terms. He’s all teeth and sheen, but in a trophy husband, he meets the bill.
Entirely obnoxious in The Big Bang Theory, Simon Helburg has always grated me, and when I saw his name in the opening credits, I cringed with the possibility of his third billing. His performance was a delightful surprise. As a soft spoken, musically ambitious gay man in the 1940s, Cosmo is barely able to contain himself when thrust into the liberal, artistic world. His fear for his career is at odds with his admiration of such a generous, passionate, if mildly deluded, woman. Helburg provides a meek characterization, most comfortable hidden behind his piano; his tiny voice quakes as he suppresses laughter and his desires. By far it’s his best performance, but that limited list isn’t quite a monumental journey.
Madam Streep, preparing for her 30th Golden Globe nomination, present another immersive character performance. Less broad than her still-infuriating Oscar win for The Iron Lady (we all know Viola Davis deserved that prize!), Streep presents Florence as a charming, weakened woman enthralled with her music and her philanthropy. Her spoken moments are managed with grace. Her timidity is managed, playing to a woman of Florence’s class, stature, and wealth, and her kindness is never to be taken advantage of; she is a woman of great respectability.
The vocalizations are key. We know Streep can sing: Into the Woods, Mamma Mia!, Postcards from the Edge, Ironweed (even bad singing there), Ricki & the Flash (why did she and Audra McDonald not sing together?), A Prairie Home Companion–actually, just check out this Wall Street Journal piece on the entire extensive repertoire. She never sounds the same! In FFJ, it’s important to note the closing credits, where we hear the actual recording of FFJ herself. Streep is an uncanny mimic, actually performing the magnificently off-key performance. Her natural skill adds the humorous quality, but the sinking accuracy solidifies her impending praise and superlative notes come year’s end.
Director Stephen Frears, following up pretty well ignored Lance Armstrong biopic, returns to the actresses he directs so well; maybe Philomena should have tipped him off as this is what audiences appreciate from him. Working with British television screenwriter Nicholas Martin, they develop an uncomplicated history, introducing a fascinating woman and unlikely gem in artistic history. Her sold out performance at Carnegie Hall is one of the most requested recordings at the venue, and Frears and Martin present a respectful portrait of a woman so misunderstood and gracious. Beautifully costumed and captured, I feel the movie will fall into my multi-rewatch library, alongside The Devil Wears Prada and Julie & Julia; the movie is such pleasant fun.