Florence Foster Jenkins Movie Review
Florence Foster Jenkins Movie Review Metadata
Do you remember William Hung? The scene: American Idol Season Three, 2004. After performing Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” in a monotone shout so off-key that it was practically in a different time zone, and receiving the inevitable shellacking from Simon Cowell, Hung won the hearts of tone-deaf Americans everywhere when he simply said “I already gave my best and I have no regrets at all.”
Another scene: sixty years before, Carnegie Hall, New York City. Another audience sat in stunned silence that gave way to laughter as a seventy-six year old socialite merrily butchered Mozart, Brahms and Strauss. How could a woman with virtually no singing ability be on-stage at Carnegie Hall? In the same way Hung made it to American Idol…unerring love for music and an intent to share that joy with as many people as possible.
Florence Foster Jenkins is a film about the lady herself, a true story that shows that if you love something enough, no matter how completely inept you may be at it, you can sweep others up into that joy with you. Jenkins was a child of privilege, a gifted pianist who played at the White House before her desire to continue studying music led to an estrangement from her father, an elopement with a man who gave her syphilis, and then the ensuing split from said unfaithful husband.
Jenkins’ story could have easily ended there, a mere blip in history, had it not been for the death of her father and an inheritance that allowed her both admittance into New York society and the ability to aggressively pursue her musical dreams. Performing for the elite of New York at her own musical circle, The Verdi Club, as well as private gatherings of her wealthy chums, Jenkins was admired by her friends and her adoring new partner, a Shakespearean actor named St. Clair Bayfield. They wildly applauded her performances and begged for more. It wasn’t until her public debut at Carnegie Hall that the truth was revealed in all its ugly glory: Jenkins couldn’t sing a note. To be more accurate, her voice could probably strip wallpaper and curdle milk. It was awful.
So how did she get to Carnegie Hall? In fairness to her, practice certainly had a lot to do with it, but so did money and the novelty of witnessing a garishly-costumed septuagenarian enthusiastically warbling arias. Just as William Hung would decades later, Florence Foster Jenkins loved music so much that her love was contagious.
With Meryl Streep (Suffragette (2015), Into the Woods (2014)) leading the way as our chanteuse, we get a peek at a few months of this remarkable woman’s life. Her loving common-law husband (Hugh Grant, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), The Rewrite (2014)) always at her side, surrounded by loyal friends, plenty of money…her life couldn’t be better at the moment. It isn’t until Jenkins hires a new accompanist (Simon Helberg, The Big Bang Theory) that the first notes are sung and we realize what our eardrums are in for. We also start learning that her life isn’t quite as idyllic as it seems…syphilis has robbed her of her health as well as a physical relationship or children with the man she loves. Bayfield buoys her passion for performing with an unending stream of praise for her (and cash bribes for others) while spending his nights in a separate apartment with a beautiful young girlfriend. Worst of all, she doesn’t know that she can’t sing, and we’re all dreading the moment when she will find this out.
It goes without saying that Streep is virtually flawless in the role, not only her performance in general, but also because she is quietly respectful of the fact that she was portraying a real person with real weaknesses. Just as it would be inexcusable to exploit a person’s physical or mental handicaps for cheap laughs, it would have been reprehensible to paint Jenkins as an clueless idiot, a doddering clown, or a pathetic old woman who doesn’t know how to sensibly retire at her expiration date. No, Streep channels Jenkins’ pure unfiltered joy in the music around and inside of her, even giving me moments of Jessica Tandy…beauty and vulnerability mixed with a no-nonsense roll-up-her-sleeves attitude. “You haven’t done your dishes!” she chides her pianist, Cosme McMoon, before stripping off her expensive gloves and doing them herself.
Grant’s Bayfield was a wonderful surprise…I’m not a big Hugh Grant fan, but he pulled off a remarkable performance (including a jaw-dropping dance scene), eliciting sympathy for a man we could have very easily hated. Despite living a separate life with his long-time mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson, Despite the Falling Snow (2016), Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)) and exhibiting questionable motives by keeping Jenkins in the dark and paying off anyone that might burst her bubble, his genuine and deep devotion to her is undeniable. What may appear as manipulation of his wealthy wife is actually desperation to make sure she’s happy and well no matter the cost or difficulties involved.
When the laughs felt a bit forced and the moments of exposition reared their ugly heads, unfortunately it was Helberg’s shoulders where the responsibility fell more than was fair. His character was naïve, sweet and enjoyable, but the winces and grimaces whenever Jenkins hit a sour note got old quickly. If we needed something explained, McMoon was there to ask the obvious questions. It’s easy to forgive, though, as we watch him wrestle down his own professional ambitions to support his friend.
The Carnegie Hall performance goes about as well as you’d expect…or maybe not? Getting to find out makes Florence Foster Jenkins a definite must-see, if only to find out what happens when the curtains close and the professional critics sit down to write the first honest reviews of Jenkins’ only public performance. Especially since, as she observed: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
William Hung would probably agree.