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Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

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The story of Florence Foster Jenkins is a timeless one, of passion, determination, and total obliviousness to the realities of the world. The tale of the New York heiress who lived for music, to the extent that she would put on her own concerts, which she believed were brilliant despite her total inability to hold a note, seems ripe for a cinematic adaptation, and really, the only thing stranger than the fact that it has taken until now for one to be made, is that not one was made, but two. Maguerite, a French film based on the story, is already out, but Florence Foster Jenkins, a more traditional telling of her tale starring Meryl Streep in the title role, and Hugh Grant as her husband, is set to be released at the beginning of May.

It’s an interesting film – even a few days after seeing it, I’m still not sure how I feel about the character of Florence. She is baffling and totally bizarre, in a way that feels very real. After all, if there’s one thing rich people can always be counted on to do, it’s be super weird about everything all the time. The thing is, the average viewer should hate her – her entire life is a gaudy and gratuitous display of wealth. She complains about not having been left enough by her father, while literally buying out Carnegie Hall for her performance, and giving the tickets away to soldiers. She frets that she cannot get enough chives for her potato salad (of which there are literal bathtubs) in the middle of wartime rations. Her husband keeps her shielded from negative reviews by paying off everyone who might be in a position to tell her that her singing kind of sucks – music reviewers, newspaper sellers, attendees, and so on. She throws money around like it means nothing – which to her, of course, it doesn’t – so that she doesn’t have to come into contact with reality. We ought to hate her.

And if not hate her, we ought to laugh at her. She is a ludicrous figure, deluded beyond belief. She is convinced not only that she is a good singer – which she is not – but that as other singers her age decline, she keeps getting better. She believes a recording of her voice would be a gift gratefully received by friends and acquaintances. She believes herself able to write and perform lyrics to accompany a song composed by her pianist, Cosme McMoon, played in the film by Simon Helberg, despite his obvious horror at the prospect. She believes she can perform to an audience of three thousand, and hold them captivated, not through comedy, but through beauty.

But the strange thing is, by the end of the film, we don’t hate her, and those characters who do laugh at her seem unkind and cynical – “mockers and scoffers,” as Hugh Grant’s character, St Clair Bayfield, describes them. Because more than being rich and ridiculous, Florence is deeply, obsessively, wholly passionate about music. She loves opera. More than anything. And she believes that it is important, too, that even when things are as bad as they were during World War II, art is vital. After all, what would be the point of fighting for a life devoid of beauty and music? When she is not performing, we see the genuine contributions she made to musical life in New York in the 1940s. When she is performing, we see that she was not doing it for praise or admiration, but because she had to. Because, even if she wasn’t technically good at music, it was the most important thing to her, the thing that had kept her alive through 50 years of a disease that should have killed her in 20, the thing that she was willing to risk dying for. While such an unproblematized portrait of extreme wealth as was portrayed in this film was a little uncomfortable to watch, it seems obvious the Florence lived for her art, and would have done so no matter her economic standing. She would have been singing all her life long no matter what, and so in the end it comes across as an inspirational, if somewhat tragic, story.

The film itself is pretty solid. Meryl Streep is clearly having a great time in the titular role, playing a character who can go from naïve to arrogant to incredibly sweet in the space of just a few lines. Hugh Grant also does a good job. St Clair Bayfield, at least as he was portrayed in the film, had a somewhat complicated life. His marriage to Florence was celibate, as a result of her having contracted syphilis during her first marriage, and so he was also seeing another woman. However, we get the sense that whether or not Florence knows about and has agreed to his having a girlfriend, he is still deeply, completely, committed to his wife, above all else. He could easily have come across as a bit sleazy, given his activities, but the tenderness that he displays towards Florence totally redeems him. Simon Helberg’s performance as Cosme McMoon is a bit up and down – sometimes he tries too hard to come across as the sensitive artist type, leading to his affectations becoming irritating and overdone – but in general, the cast is pretty good.

Overall, it’s a fun film – a bit sappy, maybe, and probably quite an idealized picture of the events and people involved, but it’s nice, and given how easy it would have been to tell this story in a sarcastic or mocking way, it’s a relief that the whole thing is as sincere and good-hearted as it is.

Florence Foster Jenkins opens on the 5th of May.

Review written by Katie Doherty

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