FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, John Kavanagh
I would place a bet on Meryl Streep earning her 20th Oscar nomination with her role as Florence Foster Jenkins. Am I reaching too early? It’s doubtful given the nature of the role and the pedigree of those around her. Jenkins was a New York socialite who dreamed of being a well-known opera singer. Her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), was a British Shakespearean actor and they performed together at the Verdi Club. Despite her failing health, she thought it was the right time to get back into singing. She hired acclaimed conductor Arturo Toscanini (Kavanagh) to be her vocal coach and Cosme McMoon (Helberg), a young pianist, to help her get back into shape. At her first lesson, it is painfully obvious that she cannot sing a note. She may consider herself a coloratura soprano, but her atrocious warbling hits all of the wrong notes. Her phrasing is poor, her breath support is non-existent, and she can barely finish a song. She’s oblivious to it all as she believes she is gifted with the art of music. Bayfield continues to support her, but McMoon fears his reputation will be tarnished being associated with her. The passion and energy she puts into her arias is something to behold, and her first concert garners laughter and heckling. This newfound fame continues to propel her into the limelight and pushes her into performing a concert at Carnegie Hall for veterans, Hollywood celebs, and the New York elite.
Director Stephen Frears is no stranger at crafting films based on real life inspirations after bringing Philomena, The Queen, and Mrs. Henderson Presents to the screen. He’s led actresses like Judi Dench and Helen Mirren to Oscar nominations, so it only seems like a likely outcome for Meryl Streep. With each of those stories, Frears is able to narrow in on what makes these stories so unique and touching all at the same time. The script by Nicholas Martin doesn’t cover a lot of ground in terms of Jenkins’ life. It’s not one of those sweeping biopics. The focus is on her final months leading up to this Carnegie Hall performance. The scene involving her first vocal lesson may just be one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen all summer. Her vocal coach proclaims, “There’s work to be done, but you’ve never sounded better.” I had to check myself a few times when I was laughing, as I didn’t want to turn into one of her audience members that came to her shows just to laugh. I also didn’t want to be the snobby critic from the New York Post played by Christian McKay. Frears finds a delicate balance of finding the humor in the story without making fun of Jenkins. He injects a farcical nature to some scenes but brings out those inspirational qualities to it as Jenkins set out to do what she loved despite her health and public opinion.
Throughout her illustrious career, Streep has donned a variety of accents, wigs, and make-up designs disappearing into every one of her roles. As Florence, this feels like the most natural side of Streep we’ve seen in many years. In every interview she’s given, she always seems so down to earth and full of life, and she brings that effervescent quality to Jenkins. She’s a joy to watch, and oddly listen to despite the frequent flat notes. She’s proven in movie after movie, she can tackle any genre of singing. She oftentimes is the best part of a mediocre movie as evidenced by Ricki and the Flash, The Giver, August: Osage County, or her Oscar winning work in The Iron Lady, but here she doesn’t outshine the material.
Don’t just come expecting the Streep Show as Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory) are equally wonderful in the film. Their characters are given their own struggles and motivations. As St. Clair Bayfield, Grant plays that fallen actor who has given up the notoriety for his love. He’s a torn man, because as we find out, he has a mistress on the side played by Rebecca Ferguson. Oddly enough, Grant still makes Bayfield an admirable man. Helberg is a complete joy as the spritely but cautious pianist McMoon. The faces he makes are scene-stealing, which is saying something playing off of Streep. I’ve only seen a handful of Big Bang episodes, but I’m now contemplating going back to look for Helberg’s comedic timing. Tony winner Nina Arianda is another standout playing a drunken floozy who has a change of heart toward Jenkins.
Florence Foster Jenkins is part underdog story and part love story between Jenkins and Bayfield. He doesn’t always make the best choices in their relationship, but there’s a deep down love and admiration they have for each other. Anyone that’s studied voice training or taken singing lessons will feel right at home. She may be an awful singer, but you continue to root for her despite it all. It’s easy to latch on to her continual drive. Frears and company have made a delicate, but delightful film sure to make you laugh and warm your heart.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? In a summer of duds, Jenkins is a winner
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS