Florence Foster Jenkins
Further proof that films are like buses
Occasionally, more frequently than a blue moon but not as often as a full moon, two films about the same topic will come out at around the same time. The most famous example would be 1998’s apocalyptic clash between Michael Bay’s Armageddon and Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact (to save you from speculating, I prefer the latter). And now, in 2016, we have two films about ‘the world’s worst opera singer’ Florence Foster Jenkins. Mme Jenkins was born in 1868 and spent many of the latter years of her life as part of New York’s aristocratic music scene. Renowned for being a very generous benefactor of ‘struggling’ artists she was unsurprisingly popular, so much so her inner circle were able to put up with her recitals – recitals which recordings prove were devoid of tone, rhythm, pitch and sustainment of a single note. Last month’s magnificent Marguerite was inspired by Florence Foster Jenkins infamous legend – transplanting the character to 1920s France. Now we have one of the grand dames of acting playing her in a biopic of her life in a production that is difficult to avoid comparison to its wonderful European spiritual counterpart
.After an incredibly well-received production in front of a gathering of her various women’s groups, most of which she chairs, Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) decides she wants to get back into the swing of regular rehearsing again – ideally culminating in a grand performance. She sets her loving husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) on the case. During auditions they find the perfect candidate in the form of Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg). McMoon rehearses with Florence daily and swiftly becomes part of the furniture for Florence. Things aren’t as easy for McMoon as he must deal with the fact that he employer is the worst singer he has ever heard, something Florence’s British ex-thespian husband does not appear to acknowledge. Then again neither of them acknowledge the fact he lives in an apartment in the city with his mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson)…
As I have stated previously it is very hard to separate this from Marguerite which I enjoyed tremendously. It seems bitterly unfair to draw a comparison between two films that, subject matter aside, would never have been compared in terms of place of origin, cast or budget. However, and I have no qualms in admitting this, I think Marguerite is the superior of the two. I really struggled when watching Florence Foster Jenkins for a multitude of reasons, reasons which have not really been addressed by the majority of reviews which shine the film’s praises.
I found the tone rather one-note (ironic considering the focus of the film!) with a plot that meandered between events and scenes. Streep’s characterisation at times bordered on pastiche. Could it be that Streep prefered to let her character reach for the high notes without providing the filler? However during the film’s quieter moments Streep really brings the character to life with some much needed depth with a revelation about 30 minutes in that does provoke a much-needed shift in tone. Admittedly this can be a common problem with ‘true story’ films as often truth can be stranger than fiction, making the truth rather difficult to believe. And yes, in case you were wondering, the singing is as bad as you’d think it would be. How the film portrays this singing is another aspect I found quite bristling when watching as I felt that the audience are called on more frequently to laugh at her rather than with her. As opposed to presenting her as a woman with a passion that truly gave her a purpose for living (*ahem* Marguerite) the film has would could almost be perceived as a mean streak as it laughs at her delusions instead.
This is not helped by the rather hollow archetype Grant portrays as her husband who spends most of his time maintaining Florence’s facade – that’s when he’s not entertaining his mistress. The reasoning for her presence is scarcely explained and results in Ferguson being vastly underused. Helberg (best known for playing Howard in The Big Bang Theory) grates profoundly as a camp closeted wannabe man about town. The fact he spends the majority of the film with a fixed expression of embarrassed bewilderment only reinforces the sentiment that Florence is a figure of fun as opposed to one who requires understanding.
The film’s message is decidedly unclear.Many reviews refer to the affectionate and heartfelt treatment the film gives its title character. Instead the film feels light on charm, instead possessing a simplistic plot that is full of encouragement to point and laugh at a rather vulnerable figure.