Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins: Film Review

Florence Foster Jenkins: Film Review

Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg
Director: Stephen Frears

There is a comic nugget between Morecambe and Wise and composer Andre Previn where Eric Morecambe astounds Previn by playing a piano concerto at odds with what is expected.

Asked by Previn what he's doing, Morecambe, with Ernie Wise stood proudly over his charge, tells him that he's "playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order". 

The delusion that both Morecambe and Wise have in this very famous sketch extends to Stephen Frears' film of the deluded wannabe soprano singer Florence Foster Jenkins, as a collective mania sets in over her talent (or lack thereof).

Set in New York in 1944, with the depression of World War II hanging over them, Streep is the aforementioned singer, who entertains friends 25 years after founding The Verdi Club. At her side is the renowned (but awful) monologuist and husband St Clair Bayfield (Grant, who is arguably the real star of this piece).

Deciding that she needs a pianist, Jenkins and St Clair end up hiring Cosme McMoon (The Big Bang Theory's Wolowitz aka Simon Helberg) who is aghast to see Jenkins cannot sing and those around her continue to nurture her delusions with sycophancy and lavish her with praise.

But as Florence Foster Jenkins' star continues to rise, she sets her sights on playing Carnegie Hall - to the dismay of McMoon and the panic of St Clair.

To say that Florence Foster Jenkins is a crowd-pleaser is an understatement.

(It's also the second such film about Jenkins since French film Marguerite last year channelled similar vibes).

Much of the first third of the film is set in delicious anticipation of Streep's delivery of Jenkins' mangling of music - and Helberg's nuanced facial reactions as she first warbles (sounding like a chicken gargling and also being strangled) are priceless, pitching the film in its glory.

However, Frears' film comes to rely on Streep's musical interludes once too often as the rest of the biopic plays out - and while Streep imbues her eccentric socialite with degrees of sadness and tragedy, as well as pathos and delusion, there are only elements of why she is like she is laid out, meaning she ends the film more of a delicious enigma than a fully rounded character. 

Granted, there's a perverse pleasure in watching Streep warble out of tone with such conviction, but the film relies on this too much as a crutch to carry it through.

Helberg's subtle performance delivers much to the proceedings but his underdeveloped edges don't help further this into much of a character piece for McMoon, a man whose inner conflict of playing the ultimate venue versus his own integrity could have proved such fertile ground.

Thankfully, in among Frears' excellently realised period details, Grant emerges in one of the best performances of his life. His St Clair is an actor who's come to the realisation that he's good, but never destined to be great - and his revealing this gives the film an underlying tone of melancholy that's greatly welcomed. 

It is Grant's film through and through and he throws all his mannerisms into a turn that's swathed in sadness, love and is ultimately strangely rousing as he throws all his support behind someone who is clearly destined to fail - it is love incarnate and is inspiring to see as he tries to buy off reviewers, sets up invite only concerts and bury the evidence out of nothing more than devotion.

Where Frears' film falls down though is its refusal to hit some of the harder edges it needs - it shies away from exploring Jenkins' delusion, only hinting at the tragedies that have shaped her present (and never once explaining why nobody has told her she could never sing). 

While it could be explained away with the same schadenfreude that sees people embracing clearly bad acts on current day talent shows, the inference that America was in need of a laugh during the end of World War II and needed healing is left sorely under-mined.

Ultimately, Florence Foster Jenkins is a light frothy film that could have been a little more with some tweaks here and there. It tantalisingly offers a glimpse at the why, but gets distracted by its own desire to grandstand Streep into performing badly. It's not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but there's a feeling this charmer could have hit more of the right dramatic notes if it had wanted to by embracing some more of the sadness inherently within.


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