Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

  • Time: 110 min
  • Genre: Biography | Comedy | Drama
  • Director: Stephen Frears
  • Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Helberg


The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.


  • The movie, Florence Foster Jenkins, is much more than a comic look at what the woman sang. There’s far more funnier things going on behind the scenes as people try to protect her. The script, direction, acting and all the technical aspects of this film work together perfectly.
    The script, by Nicholas Martin, doesn’t try to cram too much into the story. We find out what we need to know when we need to know it. The characters are written with clear intentions and distinct voices.
    The direction, from Stephen Frears, is exact and well-paced. He uses the camera well and his locations are often real. He does tend to use many close ups and ¾ shots but they work and they don’t reveal any of the modern stuff. There is one street scene that pans back from a single character to give us all of New York. Yes, a lot of it was CG work but a lot was not and the details were all there in both.
    Meryl Streep, as the title character, gives another of her award winning characterizations. Her face and body are so much in the character that every little move tells us something about Mrs. Jenkins. And she does her own singing and it’s not that easy to sing that badly and Streep’s character truly enjoys the music she thinks she making while Streep is singing badly.
    Hugh Grant plays St. Clair Bayfield, a British actor who has fallen in with Mrs. Jenkins but as time has gone on he really works are protecting her from those who would hurt her for her amateurish work. This character makes the greatest changes emotionally as he realizes how much Mrs. Jenkins really does mean to him.
    Simon Helberg does the most amazing acting of the film as he plays Cosme McMoon. I’m only familiar with Helberg’s work on The Big Bang and Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. There is no hint of any of these characters in the pianist he plays in this movie. This is a completely new character and he plays the piano. I always hate seeing someone try to fake the piano in a movie but he doesn’t. Helberg, also, handles the emotional transitions beautifully.
    These three should be up for awards as should the film itself. But that’s not all. Nina Arianda plays Agnes with gusto. It’s too bad she didn’t have enough to do or she should be up for awards as well.
    I give Florence Foster Jenkins 5 arias out of 5. It’s a wonderful portrayal of a real person and it has more humanity in it than any movie so far this year. It should be one of this year’s best.

  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆ out of 5 )


    IN BRIEF: A highly entertaining bio-pic with a star turn by Ms. Streep once again.

    GRADE: B

    SYNOPSIS: The true story of an untalented singer and her 15 minutes of fame.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Flamboyance sometimes can mask the lack of talent. But not in the case of Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), a soprano that can curdle any high C. And the new film about this musical thespian luckily has the marvelously gifted Meryl Streep, center stage, playing this marginally talented singer.

    A wealthy heiress, Florence self-promoted her musical career with the help of her second husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a doting husband and astute businessman. (While Husband No. 2 proved to be loving and protective of Flo, all Husband No. 1 gave her was syphilis and a divorce.) Bayfield actually hired a music director and accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) to help his wife avoid scathing reviews. Cosmé tried valiantly to rectify a hopeless situation, but no matter how hard Mrs. Jenkins would practice, practice, practice, she was inept in every way. Still, she played Carnegie Hall and sold out her one engagement there.

    Based on a true story, this Flo sure ain’t no nightingale! Watching her screech and sash-shay on stage is a real hoot.  Beautifully portrayed by Ms. Streep, the lady on the stage certainly had no talent, but the actress on the big screen surely does. Ms. Streep plays up the self delusion of her character. She shows a funny yet vulnerable side as Florence becomes a public spectacle and world-wide curiosity. Ms. Streep wisely hits all the wrong right notes, going beyond total buffoon and more in the range of a deeply passionate performer gone amok. Her portrayal shows her character’s childlike guile, a special sincerity above her foolish endeavors, and a gentle comic aura.

    Adding solid support are Mr. Grant as the philandering spouse and  Mr. Helberg as her loyal musical director. Both actors are very convincing in their parts as they show their ongoing love and affection to this most eccentric of singers. Nina Arianda plays a vulgar gold digger type and she delivers fine comic timing in an underwritten stock character.

    As diverting as the film is, the screenplay by Nicholas Martin never fleshes out its characters or their relationships clearly. It especially dancing around the issues of Florence’s unconventional marriage and Bayfield’s involvement with his loving mistress, well played by Rebecca Ferguson. It also misjudges its timeline with events partially addressed, causing some confusion and strains credibility.  (In this retelling of Ms. Jenkins’ life, the audiences gush repeatedly and were far too forgiving of her follies. Plus, Florence seems to die solely from a bad review.)

    Stephen Frears does a fine job of direction and the production values showing the 40’s era is spot-on. Kudos to costume designer Consolata Boyle for her period outfits which provide an added frumpiness and needed kitsch to the role. Special mention also to J. Roy Helland for his hair and make-up design of Ms. Streep and a lovely score by the reliable Alexandre Desplat.

    Overall, Florence Foster Jenkins is highly entertaining fare. The film presents an overall premise of spoofing a non-talented performer that is strictly one-note and the farcical elements could have been played more astutely. Yet what could have been a one note performance as well becomes pure coloratura in the subtle interpretation by one of Hollywood’s finest screen actresses. That alone is worth the price of admission.

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  • Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes, but ignorance can also be a willful delusion. Certainly no one ever made a case for both interpretations more than Florence Foster Jenkins, whose ability to have her passion and determination override her undisputed lack of vocal ability has been dramatized several times both for the stage – the Tony-nominated play Souvenir and the West End musical Glorious! – and the screen, last year’s French film Marguerite and this year’s Florence Foster Jenkins, the latter starring one of cinema’s greatest actresses essaying the title role of one of the world’s worst singers.

    By any accounting, Florence’s life was such that to call it “tragicomic” would be a gross understatement. Born to a wealthy Pennsylvania family, she was a talent pianist, even performing a recital at the White House for then-President Rutherford B. Hayes. Her father cut her off when she refused to give up her music, though he eventually relented and allowed her back in his financial good graces. She married at 18, an unlucky union to one Frank Jenkins, who decided to gift her with his syphilis on their wedding night. The deteriorating effects of the disease, coupled with decades and decades of taking arsenic and mercury (the only known remedies at the time), would compromise her health. An arm injury dashed any hopes of becoming a concert pianist. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin dole out these details throughout the film, and the details become piercing reminders of what a survivor Florence is and how essential the illusion was to her reality.

    “Our is a happy world,” St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) tells young pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), whom he’s hired to serve as Florence’s accompanist. It is indeed a happy world, but a diligently maintained one. St. Clair is Florence’s long-term partner, manager and caretaker, a Shakespearean stage actor who realised his shortcomings early on and who is more than content to cede the spotlight to and lavish his attention on Florence with whom he stages lavish tableaux vivants for her own social organization The Verdi Club. (The club, mostly comprised of fans and friends, also attracted the likes of Enrico Caruso and Cole Porter.) “Music has been and is my life,” Florence declares to the members of the club, who honour her kindness and generosity with their affectionate applause.

    And why shouldn’t they? At this point, Florence has yet to sing. Frears withholds the moment for nearly half an hour, but when the moment arrives, it is glorious. Cosmé is shellshocked at her caterwauling, even more perplexed that neither St. Clair nor Carlo Edwards (David Haig), a prominent conductor from the Metropolitan Opera hired to be her vocal coach, are doubled over in laughter. Carlo knows better than to endanger his earnings, and his remarks are triumphant in their ambivalence: “You’ve never sounded better,” “One word: authenticity,” and, when she wonders if she’s prepared to give a recital, “You’ll never be more ready.” Helberg, it should be noted, truly anchors this scene – his facial expressions worthy of a silent screen comedian.

    One of the many wonderful things about Florence Foster Jenkins is that instead of taking pity in her folly, the filmmakers and Streep divine inspiration from it. It would be all too easy to laugh at someone who is so unbelievably oblivious to her profound vocal ineptitude. (There are those who argue that Florence was very much in on the joke, but the filmmakers give that hardly any traction.) Not everyone can achieve, not everyone can be the best. Yet should one stop trying? Should one stop believing? And yet is it not also dangerous to foster and encourage such dedication to something that will never be achieved? Everyone involved somehow manages the nearly impossible task of making one cringe at the situations, both comic and tragic, but never once at Florence.

    It’s difficult not to remain on Florence’s side given the ebullience of Streep’s performance. If Streep was too mechanical in her technique in her younger years, she has become relaxed in her so-called dotage – few actors convey such joy in performing. Her unabashed delight is palpable as she meticulously mimics Florence’s strangulations and gesticulations, and her empathy prevents Florence from becoming a ridiculous fool.

    The genuine revelation is Grant, who is simply superb and who, to use a phrase from the screenplay, “shares a profound communion” with Streep. Florence and St. Clair had an unorthodox union – he lived with the much-younger Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson, underused but still making a strong impression during their time together – but their love and affection was undeniable. There’s a lovely little scene at the opera where Florence is greatly moved by the soprano’s singing and St. Clair basks in her happiness. It’s almost a throwaway, that scene, yet it packs as much of a wallop as another wordless exchange between the two as Florence falters on-stage and St. Clair wills her to go on with every fibre of his being. Their love story is the heart and soul of this flawed, beautiful, and heartbreaking film.

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