Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg
Genre: Comedy/ Drama
New York heiress Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) funds various music clubs across New York, and also has ambition to be an opera singer herself, but unfortunately she has a terrible singing voice. Despite this, she performs occasional concerts that, unbeknown to her, are in front of audiences specially selected by her husband and manager St Clair Bayfield (Grant), and so they always applaud her and never tell her how bad her voice actually is. However, when Florence decides to sing at Carnegie Hall in front of army troops in what is her first ‘public’ performance, it potentially risks everything that St Clair has fought so hard to preserve.
Everything about Stephen Frears’ latest, from its plot, to its cast, to its marketing just screams ‘crowd-pleaser’, and there is certainly no denying that he and screenwriter Nicholas Martin play it safe with their narrative depiction of this story of a real-life figure throughout, with the narrative seemingly ticking off a predictable checklist as it goes long. Though this of course renders Florence Foster Jenkins a film that will in due course not last long in the memory after watching, there is ultimately a little more substance to this film than your average grey-pound cinematic crowd-pleaser.
Behind all the wonderfully colourful period set design and narrative-by-numbers there is an underlying sense of melancholy within both the main story and also in the deeper psychological realms of the narrative’s main characters. It is this that gives the film that little bit more substance and also makes it a genuinely emotionally involving experience as it is almost impossible not to care for the characters involved.
This is an impressive feat as in isolation, the film’s protagonist demonstrates some very unlikeable qualities and could have easily been a character that annoys and never endears. Florence is stoic to the point of deluded, and also is extremely bossy, impatient and in many ways, self-centred, only ever thinking about herself and her career. However Meryl Streep delivers a predictably excellent performance as Florence, making her theoretically unlikeable characteristics endearing and sympathetic, and though we cannot relate to her unique situation, her single-mindedness and self-believe does make her relatable. As the narrative develops we get to know more about her backstory, making her character even more engaging, and despite her potentially irritating character traits and how these impact on the individuals in her life, we cannot help but want her to succeed, especially considering some of her own personal setbacks.
Through his own personal choice Hugh Grant does not appear in many films these days, but here he delivers one of his most emotionally complex performances, which only serves to make the film more engaging. His devotion and love for Florence is unquestionable, but through his performance and the development of his character we do truly get to not only see the sacrifices he makes for her, but also his own unique personal story. His personal life is very complicated, and in isolation some of his personal lifestyle choices may lead to him being perceived as disloyal or selfish, but the narrative and his performance allow us to engage with his character and understand him.
Likewise Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory holds his own against the two acting heavyweights in what is a narratively smaller role than the two heavyweights he is sharing the screen with, but just as important. He demonstrates not only a great knack of physical comic timing in his reactions to Florence’s singing, but also manages to deliver a performance of real heart and soul as his character’s relationship with Florence develops and they become a dynamic on-stage double act.
There is certainly no getting away from the fact that in terms of narrative Florence Foster Jenkins plays it safe, but Frears is an experienced filmmaker and knows how to get some substance out of the even the most generic narrative, and there is understated, but undeniable feeling of melancholy throughout the narrative, but this is never over emphasized and for that reason makes the characters and story more engaging. Though it certainly isn’t all doom and gloom, as there are also many genuinely hilarious moments that help provide an overall uplifting viewing experience. There are also a fair few cheesy, clichéd and predictable moments that probably change the true story at the narrative’s convenience, but Florence Foster Jenkins has that bit more substance and heart than your average genre piece, and is for this reason an engaging film that is certainly worth a watch.
Though it predominantly plays it safe as a shameless crowd-pleaser, thanks to a script that goes a little bit further than most similar films and the superb leading performances, Florence Foster Jenkins is a film that genuinely uplifts and engages.