Florence Foster Jenkins Hits All the High Notes

Written by Dylan Brandsema

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Florence Foster Jenkins Plot Summary:

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

An expertly crafted biopic should play out like an intimate documentary that may have been somehow filmed during the actual events which take place. Florence Foster Jenkins, the latest effort from English director Stephen Frears, is an expertly crafted biopic.

As the title suggests, the film is about legendary/notorious WWII-era singer and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, who, despite her immense popularity and business successes, was completely and totally unaware of her – to put it nicely – rather poor singing abilities. The film follows the eventful last days of her career, as she books herself a concert at Carnegie Hall, records an album, and discovers a new sense of fame near the end of her life.

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Jenkins is played by Meryl Streep, doing what she does best — transforming herself completely into the character of Lady Florence, donning plenty of aged wrinkles, an enlarged waistband, and a plethora of grandma wigs. Her performance isn’t about her appearance, though (but it helps) — what solidifies Streep as this character is her ability to recreate to a tee the high pitched, glass-breaking squeals and squabbles that emitted from Jenkins all those years ago. Streep is obviously no stranger to singing on screen. After 2014’s Into The Woods and last year’s Ricki And The Flash, her singing abilities have become apparent, but it’s her skills at singly terribly that are perhaps even more admirable. In her review, Susan Wloszczyna of rogerebert.com describes them perfectly: “The squawks that Florence Foster Jenkins emits when straining for high notes sound as if she were a goose trying to lay an oversized egg after ingesting helium.” I couldn’t come up with a better description if I tried.

Hugh Grant plays her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, whose undying devotion to his marriage to Florence, but his willingness to have an affair makes him one of the year’s most interesting characters. This must be the only time in a film when a character repeatedly and deliberately cheats on his wife (a wife that has done no wrongdoing), and we as the audience do not feel any sense of anger or disappointment. As someone who knew virtually nothing about Foster Jenkins and her history, it took me a while to figure out that St. Clair and Florence were husband and wife. It wasn’t until it was actually spoken aloud about when it became clear to me, and this is totally to the film’s benefit. St. Clair and Florence don’t act like any other married couple you’ve ever seen – more like a disabled housebound elder and a caretaker. Streep and Grant’s screen presence play off one another like two light prisms placed next to each other. Both of their names are surely going to be mentioned frequently during the upcoming awards season.

The dynamic of their marriage is worth talking about so significantly because this is not, by any means, a standard biopic about the career of one Florence Foster Jenkins. The way I see it, it’s about two things, but also one: It’s firstly about Jenkin’s inability to see her own lack of talent and how it affected her career and personal life, and secondly about her husband’s devotion to holding up her delusions of grandeur in light of her steadily spiraling illness. Concerning personality and character, St. Clair and Florence are completely different people, but one thing they both in common is an impenetrable sense of tenacity, and that is what the film is really about. I struggle to think of a more closely examined and passionate portrait of two people so emotionally and physically distant, but also so staunchly connected to each other’s goals and public image.

I think there’s an automatic pressure that exists when making biopics that says a filmmaker must cover all the important, key moments of the subject’s career/life. Florence Foster Jenkins does the opposite, taking the Passion of The Christ approach and beginning near the end of our famed protagonist’s journey. The film isn’t just about Florence the bad singer, but Florence the person, the careerist. By leaving out the personal details of her life story, director Stephen Frears gives the viewer a personal prompt to do their own research on Florence and decide for themselves what kind of person she was. We come out of the film having a fundamental understanding of what drives her to do what she does, but we still have a desire to know more.

Stephen Frear’s previous film, 2013’s phenomenal Philomena, tread similar ground. It told the real life story of one Philomena Lee (played in the film by Judi Dench), who spent 50 years searching for her son who was forcibly adopted from her early in life. Philomena and FFJ are obviously very different films, but Frears seems to have a fascination with the fear, and perhaps drearisome worry that comes with old age that tells us everything we’ve done might not be remembered. He’s a real humanist, I think. The director himself is 75, and the personal touch he brings to these aging, desperate characters gives the feel that no other director could direct this film like he has.

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I haven’t mentioned the big red herring here yet, which is that the film has been billed mostly as a comedy. It is, but not completely. Most of the laughs come, as excepted, from Jenkins’ dreadful, shrill singing and her therefore lack of self-awareness about it. The first time we hear her sing is during a piano audition with her new pianist-accompanist Cosme McMoon, played by Big Bang Theory star Simon Helberg, and it is very, very funny. As the film goes on, it become less funny. Seeing it in a theater, you’ll surely notice the laughs getting sparser and sparser each time. This isn’t a case of one successful gag being stretched thin, but of laughter being turned gradually into meaningful, contemplative drama and sadness. Later in the film during Florence’s performance at Carnegie Hall, we feel a sense of guilt, and little bit of heartbreak when the audience begins to laugh at her.

Despite, though, whatever you may be feeling at certain points throughout the film, one feeling remains constant, and that is a sense of utmost admiration for Florence Foster Jenkins and her love of the arts. The film kind of reminds me of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood in the way it celebrates and applauds its protagonist, rather than making a mockery of them.

A rare thing happened during the showing of this film that I attended: When the film ended and a real recording of Florence Foster Jenkins played over the end credits, not a single member of the audience left or even moved a muscle. I think to think it’s because they were admiring the music.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10