August 31, 2016
The tagline of this film prides itself in presenting "the inspiring true story of the world's worst singer." I did not think I could enjoy watching a film which would make fun of a bad singer, even if she were going to be portrayed by Meryl Streep herself. However, because of the very effusive praise I've read about it on social media, I knew I simply had to go see (and hear) Ms. Florence Foster Jenkins for myself.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was a wealthy socialite in New York City in the 1940s. A crippling nerve condition in her hands she contracted after she got married sidelined her career as a pianist. However, she devoted her life to financially supporting the musical arts. After hearing an intensely moving performance of a Toscanini aria by soprano Lily Pons, the eternally positive Florence decided to practice singing opera herself.
Supported fully by her husband, the sophisticated actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), she hired an esteemed vocal coach Carlo Edwards (David Haig) and a mousy effete young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her singing. No matter how atrocious her singing sounded, the staunchly loyal St. Clair made sure Florence was encouraged and praised, even if he had to pay for her protection. Such was her innocent confidence in her talent that she decided to stage a concert in no less than Carnegie Hall itself. Can Florence pull it off?
Whenever Meryl Streep takes on a role, she really gives it her all and she rises above the limitations of the material. On the poster alone, you can already sense the eccentricity of the lady Ms. Streep is giving life to. In this film, Ms. Streep was totally steeped in her character's peculiar oddness and she was not afraid to make fun of herself. Streep's talent in singing well known, and it took talent to transform her voice into such terrible-sounding screeching and make it funny (not annoying). Her outlandish costumes completed the absurdity of it all.
Ms. Streep was able to so poignantly capture the tragic figure behind this happy optimist as only an actress of her caliber can. No matter how foolish and pathetic the situations she got herself into, the Florence we saw portrayed by Ms. Streep never lost her cool nor her dignity, which was quite a feat in itself. This early, I would already give Ms. Streep the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy. I would bet that at least an Oscar nomination for Best Actress is also a certainty.
Hugh Grant had long been shoehorned into romantic comedies back in the 1990s. However, being more mature now, Grant was able to convincingly show unconditional love that St. Clair had for Florence. While St. Clair had his mistress Kathleen (played by the lovely Rebecca Ferguson) on the side, Grant made sure we could clearly see that St. Clair still loved Florence purely, despite this practical dalliance.
Making a bigger splash in his showy role as Cosme McMoon is Simon Helberg. We know Helberg very well as the nerdy mama's boy and aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz on TV's megahit series "The Big Bang Theory." As McMoon, Helberg uses his expressively funny eyes and face to create hilarious moments as he tried in vain to stifle his amusement at Florence's ghastly singing or swallow his shame for accompanying this woman's embarrassing public performances. His piano playing skills were also very impressive.
This film was so lovingly directed by Stephen Frears with much respect for his subject. That love was best felt in that scene when we hear the exquisite voice Florence heard in her head. That was such a glorious yet sad moment at the same time. The look of the whole film was elegant and stylish, thanks to cinematographer Danny Cohen. The atmosphere of 1940s New York City was so meticulously recreated with such amazing attention to details of that period by production designer Alan MacDonald. This was not only in the hair, makeup and costumes, but even in the outdoor scenes with the buildings and the cars on the streets.
People who love to sing would love this film. The appreciative full house at the theater I watched in yesterday afternoon was proof of its appeal. It showed that we should never let a little matter like lack of singing talent deter us from expressing our feelings in song should we want to. Pursue your passion, no matter how ludicrous this may be for other people. Having dabbled in singing myself, I have had my own Florence Foster Jenkins moments myself. I've boldly performed in public even when I doubted my own abilities. As Florence herself said, "People may say I couldn't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing." 8/10.