Title: Florence Foster Jenkins
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama, Music
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Nicholas Martin
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography: Danny Cohen
At the heel of Xavier Giannoli’s MARGUERITE (2015), which is a fictional story loosely based on Florence Foster Jenkins – the worst soprano ever. UK’s versatile and venerable stylist Stephen Frears concocts his biographical treatment of Ms. Jenkins, played by the peerless Ms. Streep, also unsparingly lets her companion St. Clair Bayfield (Grant) share the spotlight in equal measure.
Glossily rendered the film a swell period hue of 40s’ NYC, Frears’ picture level-headedly opts for a well-balanced approach between an uproarious farce and an affecting ode to an unorthodox relationship between Florence and St. Clair, since the latter has a mistress Kathleen (a gorgeous Ferguson) living in his apartment whose rent is paid by the former (yes, Florence and St. Clair have separate residences). Their triangle situation is mostly intriguing thanks to screenwriter Nicholas Martin’s slightly frivolous but undeniably winning script.
At first we have no idea whether Florence approves of St. Clair’s affair or not, then later, St. Clair confides to Cosmé McMoon (Helberg), the pianist hired by Florence to accompany her rendition and training, that he and Florence has an open relationship (the script also knowingly informs us that Florence has carried syphilis for almost 50 years, so their marital life is purely platonic), which implies Florence is well aware of Kathleen’s status, yet, in a scintillating turn, one morning Florence unexpectedly arrives at the doorstep of St. Clair’s apartment, what happens next cunningly signifies otherwise.
A pivotal point of the story is whether Florence knows how awful she sings, unlike MARGUERITE, the plot sidesteps an overt dissertation, what we perceive (sometimes from Mr. McMoon’s doe-eyed angle) is St. Clair meticulously sieves through the list of attendees of Florence’s private recitals and pulls the strings if necessary, maximally keeps every possible negative response from ever reaching Florence (a concern about her poor health is an obvious reason), a most taxing scenario is after her triumphant Carnegie Hall performance (a full house attendance and receives a standing ovation under a bit forced arrangement of scale-tipping in the way), St. Clair and Cosmé have to hide all the biting reviews yet unfortunately a telltale incident prompts her to find the newspaper and it literally kills her. Only in the end of the day, on her death bed, her remark “people can say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing” faintly suggests that there is some self-awareness in her after all.
It is immensely inspiring to witness Ms. Streep’s recent renaissance with her professionally-trained singing faculty in the big screen since MAMMA MIA! (2008) at rather a later age of an actress’ career, and the task of “artfully bad singing” is potentially the most formidable one for her to date and she accomplishes it with such finesse and pitch-perfect register even if her singing is not as atrociously awful as Florence’s in reality, and she doesn’t take Florence as a one-note laughing stock, on the contrary, her interpretation is extraordinarily blended with emotional punch and compassionate verisimilitude, in the crunch, we are so aligned with her Florence and only wish that she would never discover that deleterious review by Earl Wilson (McKay) from the Post, even if it simply lays bare the elephant in the room, that is what a great thespian can evoke with his or her sheer theatricality.
Hugh Grant, might finally get some serious award talk owing to a category-fraud campaign in the Oscar race, he is undisputedly the co-lead shoulder to shoulder with Meryl, his St. Clair generates wonderful bonhomie and sublime restraint, sometimes spontaneously, and together with Meryl, their earnest spark is mostly engrossing to regard. If Hugh were to be nominated for BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR, it would be a humongous crime to Helberg, who is indeed, the genuine supporting man here, his self-conscious tics and words-mincing affectation work inimitably with the narrative, not to mention he is such a terrific pianist.
Florence’s extravagant style is another selling point, flamboyant costumes and lavish tableaux vivants, which aptly embellish her ridiculous intonation and toneless freewheeling, and together they purvey great diversions on the stage, particularly in that disorderly era, and in retrospect, she is a satirical oddity to tease the pompous and highbrow classical music scene and her story is fundamentally a brilliant testimony of how far a person can go driven by one’s undying dream against all odds (both interior and exterior), even if it will eventually kill her or him. Still, firstly and foremost, one must be blessed to be a wealthy socialite to get started with such a staggering enterprise.