Florence Foster Jenkins Review – A Howling Good Time

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Florence Foster Jenkins, from Paramount Pictures, Qwerty films, Pathe Pictures and BBC Films presents the true story of a passionate, dedicated, and artistic patron whose deep love for fine arts drives her to pursue her dream of singing at Carnegie Hall.

Directed by Stephen Frears, Florence Foster Jenkins stars Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg and a host of strong supporting players including Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend and Allan Corduner and was written by Nicholas Martin.

Florence Foster Jenkins is based on the true story of wealthy New York heiress Florence, played by the incomparable Meryl Streep, who appears to have a conventional and enviable life, a younger, attractive, attentive husband, St. Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant, respect and social acceptance.

Socially she is the quintessential lady who lunches, enjoying the noontime company with the likes of the Vanderbilt’s, European Aristocracy, and those who names grace monuments and towers in the world’s most famous city.

The film begins in the home of Jenkins as she has decided to fulfil her passion of Opera singing. As a woman of means the world, and its praise, is available for the right price.

Encouraged by John Totten, head of the Metropolitan Opera, played by Allan Corduner, Jenkins begins singing lessons. Her passion, and patronage, for the Opera is well known and deeply appreciated and the lessons, of course, and the encouragement, are considered gratuitous. 

In order to maintain the pressures of her lessons, which she admits to practicing for “an hour a day” she auditions and hires an accompanist, Cosmo McMoon, played by Simon Helberg. As he is a serious pianist, his repertoire is extensive and deep.

As Cosmo prepares, shy Jenkins encouraged by the praise of Totten and St. Clair, she begins. As the camera moves from Jenkins to McMoon, the unusual sounds begin to filter through the expectation of the pure operatic voice anticipated. 

McMoon explains as he is shown to the door by Bayfield the sounds emitted by the well-loved Jenkins are somewhat left of normal and he as a serious pianist whose reputation is most important cannot participate in the ruse.

I enjoyed the film. Watching Meryl Streep’s dedication to her character and her inability to produce the sounds that she believes she possesses. One wonders of course, if Jenkins was pulling one over on the rest of society and playing the tricks so perfected in the 21st century of manipulating people to do or say what you want them to do in the face of utter absurdity.

Florence Foster Jenkins is not played that way, she does when she desires cross the unspoken and assumed boundaries of calling on her husband in the morning at his apartment, that she generously maintains for his personal needs. One could say he is the original Kept and Quiet man about town.

However, he is the husband and his behavior affects the relationship as he maintains a secondary relationship. As a cad, one could find no better scoundrel than Hugh Grant to portray and as the film turns to a pivotal moment that may reflect adversely on Jenkins, he rises to the occasion, to protect her, his lifestyle or the precarious financial standing and position he holds.  

Bayfield, and it is not until the story unfolds that one understands that he, is actually somewhat of a cad even in modern convention.

To his credit protecting Jenkins from the realities of a harsh, cruel, world is genuine even if his intentions are not. One does wonder, if enlightenment, knowledge of true conditions is really and always necessary. Does it change or is it only punishing and abusive when the truth only debilities and injures and the lie or façade is simple and benevolent?

Grant plays his role with flair. He is charming, attractive, a perfect escort. He genuinely cares for Jenkins, for personal or financial reasons and they are married. Although, as Jenkins is in poor health, a marriage of convenience is probably the more appropriate term.

Oddly, Jenkins with her position and wealth, finds a soul tie to Cosmo McMoon, the fledgling serious pianist. As she visits him, the scars that limited her efforts as a contemporary are revealed.

As with most women in that era, Jenkins had limited choices even as one of means. The choice of her family, which lead to lifetime health issues, resulted in inclusion in the family estate. To venture away meant poverty. Florence Foster Jenkins does, limitedly, delve into the abuse our lead had in her previous marriage and possibly even earlier.

Simon Helberg has the skills of a fine tuned silent actor. He speaks volumes with one look. And delivers the comedic undercurrent as the only one apparently in this universe who hears the actual notes being sung.

Florence Foster Jenkins is Meryl Streep in her comedic finest. Her skill as an actor to grab the role and make it her own, she has taken a tone deaf socialite and turned her into compassionate and kind, albeit misguided singer, whose pursuits and eccentricities could be tolerated had they not become so well known. She plays the drama with a que sera sera, whatever will be will be, attitude. Her past defined her future and living with the scars she was planning on one hell of a fine time, even if it weren’t in tune, with the rest of it.

Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg create a charming trio! Streep and Grant are at their fine-tuned comedic best! Helberg adds unspoken wit, the unsung hero! Bringing in the strong performances from the supporting cast and Florence Foster Jenkins adds up to a wonderful night at the theater.

History records Florence Foster Jenkins as one of the most requested performances of Carnegie Hall.  One wonders if the height of her eventual and momentary success as a singer were not orchestrated on a different spiritual plane to shine a light on the burdens she bore.

Florence Foster Jenkins opens August 12, 2016. See it. 

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