Synopsis – The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.
My Take – We all have a bad singer inside us (well at least most of us do) right? Every now and then we do some people whose performance fails go viral and being touted with mean comments. But have any one of you heard about anyone who was actually titled as the world’s worst singer? There is one. Surely only those with some knowledge of musical history will ever have heard of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), reputedly the world’s worst singer. Working more of less as a ‘companion piece’ to the Oscar winning film The King’s Speech (2010), a film about a monarch who couldn’t speak publicly we are invited to meet the soprano who should never have sung to an audience. Here, director Stephen Frears carries her name to give us more-or-less a true story of the 1940s New York socialite who seemingly did not know how monumentally awful her singing was. Florence Foster Jenkins was a Woman of Substance in more than one sense: a mega-rich heiress built like a leaking sandbag and possessed of an immense ego. Some of you may have already seen a film earlier this year with the same story called Marguerite. Sadly, I did not. But it is always a fascinating thing when two films are released pretty close to each other talking about the same thing. One recent example was when Snow White And The Huntsman, and Mirror Mirror were released in 2012 a couple of months apart. I don’t know how these things happen, but it always a nice topic to discuss. The trailers would lead you to believe it’s a hilarious comedy about an old crazy woman who dreams of being a singer despite being tone-deaf. There are elements of that, of course, but it has much more to it than just that. In reality this is a sad story of self-deception and mental frailty, albeit in funny ways. This is a tragic- comedy, which shows the sad truth behind the apparently ridiculous. It must not have been easy making a character like Foster Jenkins somebody interesting or relatable, but director Stephen Frears & actress Meryl Streep manages to do so brilliantly. This film also does a much better job than most biopics to sticking close to the facts, having regard for historical accuracy, not leaving things rose-tinted and not having characters that are basically come and go vignettes. No real knowledge of the subject is necessary to enjoy this hugely enjoyable biopic which combines comedy, pathos and a close to career best performances from it lead cast.
Based on true events, the story follows Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), a truly awful singer cosseted in her closed world of a 1944 New York hotel and pampered by her husband St Clair Mayfield (Hugh Grant), who is otherwise entwined with the younger and sensuous Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). Together with ex-actor Mayfield, the wealthy Florence is the co-star of the show at her self-owned Verdi Club where she has a non-speaking role enacting various ‘tableau’ scenes. But in the interests of following her dreams she recruits the help of famous singing instructor Carlo Edwards (David Haig) and an enthusiastic and personable young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg). While, Carlo is aware of what he is in for, Cosme is not. But to ensure his continuing good pay Cosme decides to continue without complaining, until Florence decides it’s time for her to perform in front of a real crowd. Bayfield complies and makes arrangements for a small recital, but fearing the impending negative impact of the audience which in turn my affect Florence’s deteriorating health, he hand picks people allowed to buy the tickets. Not many know that Florence was suffering from syphilis for 50 years, which she had contracted from her 1st marriage at the age of 18. On the night of the performance, loyal members of the Verdi Club sit respectfully, but others can barely contain their laughter. Feeling encouraged by her recital’s good reviews, Florence and McMoon write, record and perform original songs together, one of which gets airtime on the radio, much to the shock and horror of Bayfield and Kathleen, despite many listeners finding much enjoyment from her music, believing it to be comedic. With this burst in popularity, Florence informs Bayfield that she has booked Carnegie Hall for a one night performance and will give away a thousand tickets to soldiers fighting in the war as her way of gesture & support to her country. Bayfield tries to talk her out of it, but fails, leading to one of the biggest events of the time. This is a hilariously sad movie. Laughing through much of the first two-thirds is all but unavoidable. The shattering of Florence’s dream as though it was fine crystal is not alone the end of hope. While preparing for her live-performance debut strengthens her, she suffers from an eventually unbeatable malaise (which today is readily cured). People who are familiar with this story (and as bizarre as it may sound it is a true story) may well know the outcome, but for the sake of viewers such as me who have never been acquainted with this story, it truly is a remarkable story and also one of the year’s strongest films. The film could have easily been a nasty, or derogative look at Florence by criticizing her lack of musical skill, but instead the film is really more of an encouraging and triumphant film about a woman who has had setbacks in life, but does not allow that to hamper, or turn her back on her dreams no matter what the cost. Even though we hear Florence’s singing and know that it is nothing great, after a short while we soon stop laughing at her and go the exact opposite route by cheering her on and truly and sincerely wanting her to achieve her goals and hoping to ourselves that the end outcome will be a pleasant one. Florence is a woman with passion, but also deep down has great love and ambition for music and her love of it as well as truly loving Clair, although their relationship is at times a little complicated, which you will learn while watching the film. Bayfield is a fascinating character and in his own way has also tried out for the arts in his life, but in some ways similar to Florence, he has never truly achieved his dreams, or the breakout success that he was hoping for. While his relationship with Florence is a tad unusual (again see the film), he is still a completely loving and doted husband to her. He will also stop at nothing to see Florence’s dreams come true and if anyone says otherwise he will kindly pay them off in hopes of them thinking differently.
Their marriage and screen chemistry together is really quite heartwarming at times about a couple who would do anything for each other and you can see that their love is definitely genuine. Given its great settings, good lines and extremely proficient acting, the film successfully avoids the implausibility trap befalling so many biopics (whereby characters from history saying and doing the things they really did seem like implausible caricatures in implausible stories). Here there is little or none of that and the achievement is all the more remarkable given the near-surreal nature of the real-life story. This film depicting the mid-1940s resembles Woody Allen‘s very recent ‘Cafe Society’ (set in the 1930s) in lauding to the skies the Art Deco style. Indeed, the areas away from Florence’s Victorianism and the relative squalor of McMoon’s apartment are replete with beautiful design and color, and it is such an incredible, joyous treat to the eye that one neither questions whether 1944 was too late a date for some of that nor worries unduly if it is not just too splendid (not least given that Europe at this time is fighting for its very existence). The only negatives worth mentioning were probably some of the running gags in the film felt like they were running out of steam towards the end. Also, there was a small part to Streep‘s character that I did not like about. So there was a part of the film where I could not sympathize to root for the character. Also, some characters are more developed and interesting than others and some have little screen time. However, this didn’t come over as a huge problem in this because everything else was so successful. But I must say the period setting & the at times slow pacing may become this film difficult for a general audience to watch, especially if they’re not fans of the actors or enjoying the strangeness of the moments of the film. Among the performances, Meryl Streep‘s performance in the title role is a triumph. On a technical level she may be the most versatile actress in the world but much too often she’s been accused of failing to connect on an emotional level. Streep clicks on every level; this a tragic-comic performance of the first water in which Meryl never puts a foot wrong and yes, technically it’s a marvel too with Streep doing her own appallingly off-key singing, (no mean feat for an actress with a superb voice). Hugh Grant is often quite unfairly criticized for playing Hugh Grant in every film, but here he turns in a totally sterling performance. His performance here is one of his best, perhaps his best since ‘About a Boy’ and he has rarely been more nuanced or sympathetic in a role very much removed from his usual romantic-comedy roles. The third lead, Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory), has some of the funniest moments in the film, but by the end, he has eschewed a certain kind of comic shtick to present us with a very real character who, in his own way, loves his employer almost as much as does her ‘husband’. Rebecca Ferguson similarly excels, David Haig relishes his deliciously shady and not too pantomimic role. Nina Arianda as the younger blonde wife of a rich businessman is outstanding as the totally uncultured, uncouth, loud and vulgar woman. You start out by hating her, but by the end of the film, she has proved to be one gutsy and lovable lady – besides which, she has the single funniest moment in the entire film. On the whole, ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ is a delightful good old-fashioned dramedy which tells us a strange story well by being crisply scripted, elegantly photographed, stylishly directed & well acted.
Directed – Stephen Frears
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 111 minutes