Friday, 13 May 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

I have admitted previously that once upon a time I really didn't like Meryl Streep with her funny accents and barnstorming performances. But that was then! For years now I have joined the club that fetes her many talents and I am constantly amazed not just by her versatility but by her likeability as well.

The above film, loosely based on the real-life Madam Florence, is hysterically funny in parts; at the same time it is sweetly heart-breaking. An aging heiress and a fixture on the New York social and cultural scene in the l940s, her passion was music. She loved to sing and took endless voice lessons. The only problem was that she was a hopeless singer -- and no one had the heart or courage to tell her this. To her own ears, she was a nightingale. The same story (but without the true biographical detail) is also the subject of the recent French film "Marguerite" (2015), with the talented Catherine Frot in the Streep role.

Florence is protected and cosseted by her devoted younger husband, one St Clair Bayfield, a failed English actor and purportedly wrong-side-of the-blanket aristocrat. In truth the pair were never married, but he did indeed become her agent, comforter, and faithful companion -- theirs being a platonic relationship since Florence was syphilitic thanks to her first disastrous marriage. He maintains a love-nest for mistress Kathleen to fulfil his more basic needs, but his foremost loyalty is to the aging diva. This part is played by Hugh Grant with greater gravitas than his most famous roles would suggest possible. He's made relatively few cinema appearances of late and determinedly turned down reprising his role in the latest Bridget Jones movie. I've had the impression that he's more or less fed up with the whole silly business, so the grace and depth that he displays here came as a pleasant surprise. And he can still dance up a storm.

In fact he is so good that there is talk of a potential Oscar nomination, but it's early days yet and movies with spring release dates tend to be forgotten by the end of the qualifying season. Mind you if any of the cast deserves special recognition (apart from Streep whose nomination seems a shoo-in), I would single out Simon Helberg playing Florence's accompanist, the marvellously named Cosme McMoon. Helberg is apparently best known for his recurring role in the long-running TV series "The Big Bang Theory" which I have never seen, so his endearing turn here as the talented pianist struggling to keep a straight face while Madame Florence howls through her arias was an unexpected treat and nothing short of brilliant. 

However without Streep's inspired performance there would be no movie or a far less entertaining one. We all know that she famously studied opera as a young lady and that she can certainly still sing beautifully ("Mamma Mia" being a case in point). As luck would have it I also viewed her previous movie this week, "Ricki and the Flash" (2015), in which she plays a rock-chick who has forsaken her family for the pop career that never quite materialised, and her vocalising is the highpoint of that so-so film. She therefore required special coaching to portray the awfulness of Florence's operatic ambitions and it is impossible not to laugh heartily at her enthusiastic squawks and yowls. Yet we can not help rooting for the poor benighted lady and she is more a figure of pity than a figure of fun. When the truth finally hits home after her Carnegie Hall debut, despite Bayfield's urgent machinations to protect her from the most hurtful of reviews, she says 'Some may say that I couldn't sing, but no one can say that I didn't sing'. It's a bittersweet moment.     
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