Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
– “Was everyone laughing at me the whole time?” (Florence)
– “I was never laughing at you.” (St. Clair)
Directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen” (2006) & “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988)), “Florence Foster Jenkins” is a comedy based on a true story of Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), a New York socialite whose desire to be a well-known opera singer greatly surpassed her natural abilities. Unaware that she has a very poor singing voice and hearing, Madame Florence Foster Jenkins embarks on the career of a professional opera singer, hiring a talented young pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), and relying for encouragement on her devoted “common-law” husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). Knowing how much music matters to his partner, St. Clair manages to keep the appearances of Florence having vocal potentials often enough, or maybe until the time Florence gives a thousand tickets to soldiers to come and hear her live at the Carnegie Hall, a large prestigious music venue in the centre of New York. “Florence Foster Jenkins” is the kind of a movie one is happy to have watched: it is funny in its individual scenes, and melancholic and moving in its overall presentation; Meryl Streep’s Florence is breath-taking, and Hugh Grant gives the performance of his career.
Meryl Streep as Madame Jenkins is, of course, the main focus of the movie. Florence is an exemplary character study. At the beginning of the movie, there is Madame Jenkins hanging from the ceiling, playing an angel of inspiration to a musician who lost his way at her own club. Here, the audience gets to know their main character’s psyche just a little bit. She is a woman craving for personal attention and recognition, but as we find out later there is an element of sheer goodness, kindness and warmth towards people in her. She encourages Cosmé McMoon, her pianist, any way she can, and is determined to bring music to the people so as to make them happy. Florence gives free tickets to soldiers to let them forget the horrors of war, and wraps carefully her recorded compositions in Christmas paper, thinking the recipients would be overjoyed to hear her sing. Yes, Florence is very naïve, confused and dependent emotionally on St. Clair, but she has all the charm, strength of character and courage for which people inevitably flock to her. Even her fierce critic Agnes Stark lowers her defence at the end and supports Florence and her singing. Florence is insecure inside and does not have common-sense proportionality, saying at one point, when referring to the scene where she acted as a mere prop with no lines: “I don’t feel that I have imbued the moment of inspiration with an intensity that it deserved”. However, her passion for music is also transmitted to the audience and we do start to believe in the impossible happening. Florence says: “Music is and has been my life. Music matters”. Whoever will not believe that when there is so much light in Florence’s eyes when she says that? And, whoever dares to question Florence’s high ambitions when there is so much zeal in her to make them happen? We may even be reminded of such quotes as “Believe you can and you are half-way there” (Theodore Roosevelt) and “They can do all, because they think they can” (Virgil).
Meryl Streep is magnificent in her character, playing with such brilliance that her 20th Academy Award nomination could be in sight. Streep projects the naiveté of Madame Jenkins, but she also accurately portrays that courage of Florence to stand up for her beliefs, even though she does not believe fully in herself. The moment there is sadness on Florence’s face, the audience also feels helpless, and when Florence is happy, we are also happy to indulge in her eccentricity, and let St. Clair to provide another cover-up for Florence’s bigger and bigger ambitions. The audience can just sit back and slowly take-in the unveiling comical effects of everything being “staged” for Florence’s peace of mind. It is deliciously entertaining to watch St.Clair bribe the way to Florence’s glory.
Hugh Grant as Florence’s partner, St. Clair Bayfield, also an actor, is so encouraging and supportive of his “common-law” wife and her unreachable ambition, that, we, the audience feel nothing but warmth towards him and his attempts to fulfil Madame Jenkins’ desires, even though we know fully well that he already betrayed her at least “physically” when he decided to keep a younger mistress on the side. Grant outperforms himself fully here. In his role as the doting “common-law” husband of Florence, he does everything and more. When we may laugh at Florence’s futile attempts at singing, he may genuinely cry out of humility and a touch of exasperation; and when we are ready to ignore and dismiss Florence, he pays his utmost attention to her, and lavish her with even more care. Despite the age of his character, he seems vigorous, and is always discontent until such time that he sees Florence happy. For example, there is a scene in the movie when St. Clair cannot just seat at the table in a bar and hear young people make fun of Florence, even though his mistress warned him that if he stands up for Florence, she would leave him for good. In another scene, St. Clair says in defence of Florence’s singing, quoting Beethoven: “a few flat notes may be forgiven, but singing without a feeling – may not”. In no other role, Grant was so theatrically flamboyant to the outside world, yet so devoted and full of weakness and tenderness towards his beloved. It is through St. Clair, the audience also finds their true sympathy for Florence as she is portrayed as only too human, and also wanting her share of true happiness in this world, whatever its costs may be, especially in her partner’s eyes.
Equally important to the film is Florence’s pianist Cosmé McMoon, played by Simon Helberg, who is better known for his TV series, such as “The Bing Bang Theory” (2007-2016). Mr. McMoon is the one through which we first glimpse the true talents (or rather a lack thereof) of Florence. During his audition, the film audience, together with Mr. McMoon, does not know what to think of Madame Jenkins’s voice. The facial expressions of Mr. McMoon when he hears Madame Jenkins’s voice for the first time are priceless, especially their changes as Florence then receives false compliments for her performance. St. Clair’s devotion for Florence seems to be contagious, because Mr. McMoon also develops an attachment to the old lady, and some of the more moving scenes are those involving him and Florence together.
There are only two big issues with “Florence Foster Jenkins”: (i) the last 15 minutes of the movie; and (ii) the balance between the movie’s dramatic/melancholic elements and the comedy. Regarding the first, the drama is somehow lessened towards the end of the movie, and this may be because we finally see something predictable. Regarding the second, the movie does not quite manage to balance its sad elements with its funny ones. For example, throughout the movie, there are references to Florence’s long-term battle with syphilis, and yet, these are so hurriedly allured to, that sometimes we only take in the funny side of her professional career, and the meaning of all the melancholy is lost to us, and sometimes it is the reverse, and we do not see the bright side of things when the movie becomes too melodramatic.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” has great set designs and there is attention to detail in every scene. Brilliantly staged, the movie is not just a show-case for Streep’s unparallel performance: this drama-comedy is genuinely funny and deeply moving; the best I have seen all year. 9/10