Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nine Arianda, John Kavanagh. Directed by Stephen Frears. (2016, 110 min). PARAMOUNT
The cool thing about Meryl Streep is she's instantly recognizable, yet we never find ourselves saying “Hey, there's Meryl Streep” whenever she's on the screen. All we see is the character she's disappeared into. I guess that's why she's been nominated for 19 Oscars - winning three - and one of the few living actors who can never be accused of phoning-it-in.
If I were a betting man, I'd say the odds are decent she'll get yet another nomination for her performance in Florence Foster Jenkins (maybe even win it). Even if this film were terrible, Streep as the hapless title character makes it worth your time.
Fortunately, the movie is far from terrible.
Inspired by true events, Florence Foster Jenkins is about a New York socialite with a lifelong passion for music. Along with her husband, failed actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), she has always heavily supported the New York music scene, opera in particular. She also fancies herself a singer but, despite endless practice and training, is oblivious to the fact she doesn't possess a shred of talent. That doesn't stop her from trying to achieve her dream of performing at Carnegie Hall, hiring budding young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her on stage.
Florence also suffers from the debilitating effects of syphilis (there was no real cure back in 1944), which she contracted from her first husband and makes her current marriage to St. Clair somewhat unusual; they live apart and he keeps a mistress, though he's still devoted to Florence and her career. Aware she's a terrible singer, he continuously does his best to shield her from ridicule (such as bribing critics and hand-picking her audience). Meanwhile, after taking it onto herself to make a record, Jenkins becomes enormously popular with her peers and the public, mostly because she's laughably awful, but also because she's always been so kind-hearted and generous that she's earned a lot of goodwill from those in her social circle.
Florence Foster Jenkins gets to have its cake and eat it, too. The film mines a lot of laughs at Jenkins' expense, but at the same time, her utter sincerity is so endearing that we root for her, despite the fact she continuously makes a public fool of herself. While Streep deserves much of the credit, director Stephen Frears approaches his subject with the same attention to character complexity as he did with The Queen. Just as Queen Elizabeth was aloof but not cold-hearted, Jenkins may be blissfully unaware of her complete lack of talent and oblivious of what's said about her, but she's not presented as a fool. The same can be said for Grant as St. Clair, putting a sweet spin on his conniving cad routine; despite some of his unscrupulous actions, they're done with the best of intentions. Helberg is also terrific, stealing a few scenes for himself. Despite being initially horrified over what being associated with Jenkins might do to his career, Cosme grows to love and respect her, which Helberg conveys with more subtlety than one expects from a cast member of The Big Bang Theory.
Funny, sweet-natured and ultimately touching, Florence Foster Jenkins is a hard film not to like. With a story almost too strange to be true and another award-worthy performance by Streep, this one is not to be missed. You also might want to have some tissues handy.
- FEATURETTES: “Ours is a Happy World” (featuring interviews with the cast); “The Music and Songs of Florence”; “From Script to Screen”; “Designing the Look”; “Live at Carnegie Hall” (a brief history of the venue); Meryl Streep Q&A; world premiere footage
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