There’s a pivotal moment at the end of Florence Foster Jenkins, the latest from director Stephen Frears, in which a gravely ill Jenkins (Meryl Streep) gently confronts her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) about a negative review of one of her concerts.
The review isn’t necessarily incorrect – it states, rather bluntly, that Foster is not a good singer. She isn’t – not by a long shot. The tidbit the audience get from the review underlines how harsh this certain critic was on Jenkins’ concert – words which drip over into Jenkins’ character and intent. Foster acknowledges to Bayfield that even if the public says she can’t sing, they surely can’t say she didn’t sing– a sentiment that puts her at ease. Random critic be damned – she did her best and went after her dream.
Herein lies the inspiring and challenging tale of Jenkins, a real-life public figure. She was a very wealthy New York socialite and an arts maven/financier who, thanks to her dedicated spouse, had no clue she wasn’t particularly good at what she loved to do – performing.
Bayfield helped conjure this pleasant existence for Jenkins – one in which she could perform her art publicly in a way that would shield her from the court of unfeigned opinion. He always put her in front of friendly crowds (primarily of folks within her running crew – elderly rich people who either supported Florence out of admiration or out of an inability to hear well) and would pay off critics to pen exuberant praise of performances for her to find the next day. The task for Bayfield became more challenging when Jenkins began a quest to become an opera singer.
Frears’ delightful film about Jenkins’ operatic journey plays like a comedy, though it certainly has its pangs of sadness and introspection. It’s certainly humorous at first to see Jenkins (a splendid, to-be-expected Streep) attempt to go through vocal exercises, flinging flat-as-sheetrock “do-re-mes” and high-pitched bravados across the room to the feigned awe of her spectators.
Though, as the film wears on, it becomes more evident that Jenkins’ artistic ambitions are less about vanity than they are about positive intent. When Jenkins hears the plight of a sad woman on the radio whose loved one has gone missing in the war (World War II to be exact, as the film takes place in 1944), she books Carnegie Hall for a gig and gives out tickets to the soldiers in order to do her part. Though, as Bayfield finds out in a fated encounter at a bar, those that have heard Jenkins’ record only listen in to grab a quick chuckle. Her inability to sing begins to lose its humour.
The film plays with many ideas about art itself – what importance it can carry for someone, how it can serve as a charging horn for those in its service, how vulnerable someone like Jenkins truly can become in front of a jury of strangers. It also challenges those that consume art – particularly those that get tingles from tearing apart trash.
Florence Foster Jenkins’ “fame” could be equated to the kind of fame a viral video star might receive. Think back to the time your friend emailed you a video of an audition gone wrong on American Idol, in which a poor person is belittled on live television for sharing their oft-horrendous singing abilities with the world. It’s funny in the moment until you realize how utterly cruel a thing it is to laugh at someone for failing – the populous has become high and mighty in their search for viral sensations to ridicule. Now, some of the Idol mishap auditions were obviously put-ons that earned their jeers, but it’s those dream-crushing ones – the ones that forced a young teen to reevaluate their career ambitions – that deserve nothing but empathy.
Jenkins life was plagued with heartache as a result of a failed first marriage that left her with a life-altering STD in a time without proper treatment – something that would leave her ill for most of her life, not knowing when the disease would advance. Her art was a way of coping with her pain and living each day to the fullest — it’s why she was more-than-deserving of the reality Bayfield set up for her. What right did anyone have in this film to laugh at her abilities? What right do any of us have to make fun of someone for doing their best?
The screenplay by Nicholas Martin does a masterful job of utilizing these themes to challenge the audience, using Jenkins’ story without ever losing the general spirit of the material. Though there’s certainly been some creative license taken with the narrative (always remember “based on a true story” means exactly that), Jenkins’ life can both inspire and challenge. Frears’ film never loses its sense of levity, but through the cracks, audiences can peer in to the film’s less-than-rosy subtext, harder to swallow but nevertheless important. It’s the same technique that made Frears’ 2013 film Philomena such an overwhelming marvel. Fittingly for a film grounded in music, Alexandre Desplat’s score soars with its classical structure and wistful melodies.
Streep has been more-musically inclined in recent times, with turns in such films as Into the Woods and Ricki and the Flash, and here she’s likely to make her twentieth trip into the Oscar nominee’s luncheon for her portrayal of Jenkins. It’s not necessarily one of her best performances — the role isn’t as incisive as her portrayal of Julia Child in Julie and Julia, but it’s still an outstanding demonstration of Streep’s talents. She is a great actress, and her consistent excellence should never be misunderstood as stagnate just because it occurs so frequently.
The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg does nice work with his Cosmé McMoon, a soft-spoken, fidgety pianist whom Bayfield ropes in to playing for Jenkins as she works to become an opera singer and, as time goes on, learns to assist Jenkins and help her in her artistic endeavors. But it’s Grant who stands above all here. The actor embodies the dedication and admiration Bayfield had to his wife. Though it was an unconventional relationship, one in which Bayfield had a separate girlfriend, it was one of pure love and devotion. Grant has primarily been a comedic actor throughout his career, but here, he blends his charisma and likeability with a deep understanding of Bayfield’s sense of duty. He does a great job of playing up the husband’s personality with pomp and energy, but he also sinks into the despair that weighs on Bayfield as he fights for his spouse. Really, Grant does as much here to disappear into his character as Streep does. Going toe-to-toe with such an acting giant takes true skill, and Grant goes the distance.
Florence Foster Jenkins is an interesting film – incredibly pleasant on the surface, and profoundly honest at its core. How you view the film will depend entirely on how deeply want to delve in to its text. If you are looking for an inspirational tale of an artist who achieved her dreams despite her detractors, by all means, you will be more than satisfied. But for those looking for a little more, there is an interesting take here on the way in which our society views and treats its artists, even those that fail and fail spectacularly.