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  Florence Foster Jenkins Make A Note Of That
Year: 2016
Director: Stephen Frears
Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Alain Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions, Brid Brennan, John Kavanagh, Pat Starr, Maggie Steed, Thelma Barlow, Liza Ross
Genre: Comedy, Biopic, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was a society lady in New York City who was a well-known patron of the arts there, especially where music was concerned, but her dearest wish was to get involved in a performing capacity. It was all very well putting up the money for these productions, a large inheritance from her father which kept her comfortable, but would not it be more satisfying to be up on the stage, singing her heart out, and gathering the acclaim of an appreciative audience? She did appear in "living tableau" to accompany the orchestra's renditions of classical pieces on the stage, but as she told her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), she wanted to present a concert where she sang herself - what could possibly go wrong?

If you have heard of Florence Foster Jenkins, at least prior to this film (David Bowie was a fan), then you would be well aware of what was amiss, and that was her utter lack of talent. Nicholas Martin's script opted to depict her as oblivious to her great deficiencies in musical ability, though there was some dispute about that as the real Florence was apparently both thicker skinned when it came to criticism and not as sweet-natured as Streep portrayed her, but this offered opportunities to explore something very modern to the twenty-first century, which was whether the novelties, the figures of fun in our culture and media, were worth sending up or getting angry about their undeserved fame, or whether they had more feelings than were often acknowledged.

The villains of the story were those who would have told Florence to her face that she was absolutely dreadful at performing, and the biggest baddie of all was Christian McKay as a deeply unimpressed critic (yet another movie where the critics got it in the neck - there was a defensive streak emerging in many of these) who wants to write a review lambasting her. But on the other side of that was Bayfield, who could have been viewed as the male equivalent of a gold-digger, telling his wife whatever she wanted to hear in return for a portion of her wealth, yet in actual fact was shown to have nothing but affection and respect for her. Grant, usually regarded as a dramatic lightweight thanks to all those frothy comedy roles he was typecast in, was the real surprise here.

You expected Streep to nail such a larger than life personality, and naturally she did all her own singing, replicating the actual inspiration's murdering of various standards with pinpoint accuracy, but working in tandem with an unexpectedly sensitive Grant they brought out an aspect to the character which was curiously tragic. She suffered health problems thanks to contracting syphilis from her husband at age eighteen, and this made Florence a fragile figure much in need of coddling as Bayfield struggled to keep her on an even keel, which lent Grant a number of scenes where he was able to convey genuine feeling in what was essentially a ridiculous premise. This resulted in an experience which gradually became more moving, so you would start laughing at the lady and end up cheering her on.

Florence was, of course, deluded, but this film suggested we all needed an illusion or two, or more, to keep us going through the day for if we were aware with harsh clarity of our foibles and flaws we would likely never leave our home. Accompanying Streep and Grant was another, equally excellent turn from Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon who was Florence's literal accompanist on the piano, seen as conflicted as to what this position will do for his career (not very much, as it transpired), and this trio lifted what could have been flimsy, ha ha let's laugh at the silly woman material into something almost profound. Obviously they played around with the facts a little, but it was in pursuit of a truth about entertainers and entertainment that was genuinely intriguing, though it was undercut by an uncertainty over whether Florence or St. Clair was the main character as either could have been, and though Streep played the titular heroine Grant had more screen time. But when she plays Carnegie Hall, it's a rather lovely tribute to the triers of the world, and all those whose reach was shorter than their grasp. Music by Alexandre Desplat.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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