Streep Is Pitch-Perfect, But The Tune of 'Florence Foster Jenkins' Falters

by J.R. Kinnard

12 August 2016

Frears transforms this one-note comedy into a nuanced look at social and emotional issues.
 
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Florence Foster Jenkins

Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson

(Qwerty Films/Pathé Pictures International/BBC Films)
US theatrical:
UK theatrical:
2016

Florence Foster Jenkins is one of those unassuming films that sneaks up on you. The ‘40s dramedy from veteran director Stephen Frears deftly captures the delights and dangers of wish fulfillment. You aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry as our delirious heroine (played by a fearless Meryl Streep) straddles the precarious line between fantasy and reality. The subtext grows richer even as the broader comic bits grow tiresome. Florence Foster Jenkins is a surprisingly nuanced film that isn’t afraid to tackle painful social and psychological issues.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) loves music. The doddering New York heiress dedicates her every waking moment to the advancement of musical culture at her modest theater, The Verdi Club. There, she and her doting husband, the middling actor and monologist St. Clair “Whitey” Bayfield (Hugh Grant), stage elaborate musical productions that aim well beyond their talent grades. The Verdi lies somewhere between dinner theater and way off Broadway, but Florence spares no extravagance for her easily entertained customers. She’s like the Michael Bay of the geriatric set.
 
But Florence has a thirst for the spotlight. She aspires to compete with the young and beautiful operatic sopranos who shake the rafters with their angelic voices. No longer content to play a silent background character in cringe-worthy productions like Ride of the Valkyries, Florence hires a vocal coach and aims for a date with Carnegie Hall. There’s only one problem: she can’t sing worth a damn. With an atrocious vocal range that “defies medical science”, there’s no hope that Florence will ever realize her dream, or is there?

The premise, based on Florence’s real-life exploits as an eccentric Manhattan socialite, is the stuff of farcical comedy. Frears (The Queen, Hi Fidelity) and his screenwriter, Nicholas Martin, save their film from becoming a glorified Saturday Night Live sketch by injecting a healthy dose of subtext. Streep’s primordial screech is guaranteed to draw cheap laughs, but these broad comic crescendos belie the fascinating dynamics beneath the surface.

If everyone around you indulges your fantasies, how can you tell what’s real? Frears examines this question from every possible angle in Florence’s life. From her determination to achieve operatic heights to her “common law” marriage to Bayfield, Florence constructs an elaborate fantasy to shield herself from life’s inconvenient truths.

“Love takes many forms,” Bayfield concedes of his decades-long relationship with Jenkins. Grant is perfectly cast as the sycophantic cad with a heart of gold. He fawns over Florence, catering to her every whim, before retiring to the welcoming arms of his striking young lover (Rebecca Ferguson looking positively Bergmanesque). He toils over every detail of Florence’s daily social luncheon (including a bathtub full of potato salad) and then absconds to the beach house for a sex-filled “golf holiday”.

Yet, despite these indiscretions, Bayfield and Florence love each other unconditionally. It’s an unconventional relationship that challenges our notions of love and dedication. Contracting syphilis from her philandering first husband, Florence must abstain from sex with Bayfield. Theirs is not a relationship of physicality and passion, but spirituality and companionship; a sublime connection fed by the music they adore. Florence is certainly privy to Bayfield’s shenanigans, but publicly acknowledging them would shatter her idyllic vision of marriage. Instead, she endures the strained compromise and simply ignores the damning evidence. It’s the type of crippling mental gymnastics that “good wives” were forced to perform in that era.

This inescapable mix of pity and admiration for Florence makes an otherwise simple story extremely affecting. From the first tortured chords of “The Bell Song”, your heart aches for this talentless woman who desperately wants the unattainable. You want her to stop before the impending humiliation, but she refuses to yield. Through her personal resolve and passion for music, Florence mobilizes the world, most notably Bayfield, to indulge her fantasy. She’s painfully misguided, but you also admire her unrepentant sincerity and passion.

Frears and his production team do a splendid job capturing the spirit of the ‘40s through costume, song, and set design. The returning World War II veterans are a rambunctious counterpoint to Florence’s superficial world of status and etiquette (Bayfield hilariously scolds a seated newcomer, “The chairs are not for practical use!”). Streep and Grant feel completely at home here, splashing the screen with the same slapstick elegance as other comic duos from that era.

Perhaps the biggest failing of Florence Foster Jenkins is spending too much time with Bayfield while Florence recedes into the background. This has the doubly troubling consequence of wasting Streep’s talents and calling into question Bayfield’s motivations. We come to know him as such a devoted husband that his indiscretions feel like a plot contrivance to generate drama. Also, Florence’s vocal contortions wear thin by the film’s conclusion, when Frears relies too heavily upon reaction shots from secondary characters to carry the comedy.

This is pretty much the “Streep and Grant” show with the notable exception of Simon Helberg as Florence’s pianist and composer, Cosme McMoon. Helberg is a twitchy delight as the serious pianist who can’t afford to be seen with Florence, but can’t afford to reject her generous salary either. He’s the perfect conduit for our conflicted emotions; we’re mortified by Florence’s lack of skill, but she earns our allegiance with her determination.

Ultimately, Florence Foster Jenkins is a peculiar little film that produces just as many cringes as laughs. It’s painful to endure Florence’s humiliation, and even more pitiable to see the depths of her self-delusion. Yet, her fortitude in the face of adversity makes any dream feel achievable. It’s a credit to Streep, who must be commended for singing badly with such utter conviction, that Florence is never reduced to a tragic figure. Florence Foster Jenkins suggests that love may not conquer all, but it can inspire us to protect those that believe in it.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Rating:

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