Florence Foster Jenkins is exactly the kind of film that one expects to see in April/May, that awkward time in the cinematic calendar where the majority of movie goers are waiting for the unstoppable train of Summer blockbuster begin to hit the screen. It is a time usually reserved for middling kid’s animations and dramas/biopics that studios didn’t have the enthusiasm to release during awards season. Florence Foster Jenkins falls in to the latter of these categories, but with an interesting series of true events to cover and a stellar cast with which to play with, I was excited to see if the film would mark a pleasant chapter in a cinematic period that is historically rather dull.
Inspired by a true story, Florence Foster Jenkins tells the story of an eccentric New York heiress (played by Meryl Streep), whose passion and patronage for the musical community is counterbalanced by the fact that she cannot, under any circumstances, carry a tune. Surrounded, lovingly rather than cynically, by a group of companions that encourage her passions and hide the tone deaf truth from her including husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and pianist Cosmé McCoon (Simon Helberg), the narrative takes the audience through a period in Florence’s life where, in a bolder mood than ever before, she decides to hold a concert at Carnegie Hall, opening herself up to the sort of ridicule and vitriol that, thanks to her husband and band of loyal friends, she had never experienced. What I liked about the film was that, though the trailer makes it seem like a fluffy period comedy, it packs a genuine punch of emotion that makes the audience see Florence not as a figure of fun but as somewhat tragic character whose life has been full of pain, a pain which only music can subside. As more interesting and shocking details about her life are revealed, you find yourself more and more on the protagonist’s side, and this narrative build up makes for a really tense and and emotional final third as the audience have essentially taken on a similar role to that of St. Clair and Cosmé in not wanting Florence to face a barrage of abuse and hurt. As with any biopic, the constraints of a motion picture running time mean that parts of the film feel a little truncated and sewed together for convenience, but overall the filmmakers do a solid job at portraying Florence’s life long relationship with music. Although there certainly are a number of set pieces that showcase the undeniably comic undertone of a unique situation like this, it is important to state that the film is never mean spirited at the expense of its protagonist, rather working in the opposite direction and leaving the audience with nothing but affection and empathy for a unique character who, though utterly vulnerable, was brave enough to live her dream to the very end.
At this point in her career, it almost feels like it has become superfluous to rate a Meryl Streep performance. Whether the film she is starring in is bad or not (I’m looking at you, Ricki And The Flash), it is never in doubt that Streep’s quality and effortless characterisation skills will be on full display. Interestingly, Streep’s memorable turn as Florence is the sort of performance that could only have been given by an actress who can actually sing very well, being masterful enough to warp and adapt the notes in such a way that you want to keep listening instead of being down right put off. She is clearly having fun in the role her screen presence blows through anything that comes up against her in the form of potentially suspect dialogue or cliched tropes. Hugh Grant as St. Clair Bayfield gives a pleasantly surprising performance as the husband who has something of an unusual arrangement with his wife. A lot of Bayfield’s actions throughout the film could be perceived as negative or suspect, but Grant’s charm and ability to handle the more sentimental and emotional moments of the narrative result in a more well rounded character than the actor how produce for a long time. As the only other key player in the picture, Simon Helberg puts in a charmingly goofy and endearing performance as the young pianist Cosmé, hired not knowing the extent of Florence’s ‘uniqueness’ and initially dismayed at how her public performances might affect his reputation. One could see Cosmé almost as an audience surrogate within the narrative, at first mocking and sardonic, but eventually supportive and fiercely loyal as his relationship with his eccentric employer develops.
Overall, Florence Foster Jenkins is a warm, endearing drama that tells the slightly truncated yet effortlessly intriguing story of a rather extraordinary woman. Very few risks are taken here by the filmmakers, but when you have a unique story to tell and Meryl Streep to drive the bus, there is absolutely no need to experiment in my opinion. Don’t be fooled in to thinking that the fluffy trailer tells you everything you need to know. Sure, there is certainly comic value to be experienced, but the picture provides a much more moving two hours than you might expect. Two thumbs up.