Florence Foster Jenkins – Review

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Stephen Frears’ preceding two endeavours, Philomena and The Program, centred around absorbing, fascinating subjects – and yet the viewer was left to adopt the perspective of an outsider, peering into the remarkable set of real life events through the eyes of journalists caught up in the narrative. His latest biopic, this time of the seminal opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins, renowned for her inability to sing, follows a similar path, as we watch on via her doting, compassionate husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant).

We meet Florence Foster Jenkins, portrayed by Meryl Streep, towards the end of her life. Though married to Bayfield, their relationship is plutonic, allowing him, albeit secretly, to have another lover on the side, in the patient Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). But aside from this misdemeanour, he remains a key component in allowing the eccentric performer to fulfil her one dream: to be an opera singer. The problem is, she cannot sing. In fact, she’s one of the worst singers you’ll have ever heard. But her courage to stand on stage, and her sheer, infectious enthusiasm gains her a cult following of sorts, with fans flocking to see her perform. Hiring piano player Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), she sets out her desire to perform at the prestigious venue Carnegie Hall – though with exposure that vast, maintaining the secret, and ensuring that she is unaware people are laughing at her, may just be too great a challenge for Bayfield.

It’s intriguing to delve into the subject’s life for a short period, avoiding the tropes of the archetypal, cradle-to-the-grave biopic that seems wildly outdated in contemporary cinema. There’s something oddly uplifting about this tale, as while many people would mock the singer (if you can call her that), most seemed oddly respectful of her courage, and willing to allow her to live out this fantasy. Frears does much of the same thing, maintaining the illusion throughout the opening act, as we’re placed within her own head. Thanks to this approach it allows for the feature to revel in overstatement, particularly needed where Helberg is concerned, who overacts somewhat, but thankfully not to the film’s detriment given the surrealist edge that exists. Talking of performances, Streep is of course magnetic in the title role, but Grant steals the show, in a role deserving to be discussed once the award’s season rolls around.

But just like one of Florence Foster Jenkins’ performances, there is a deep, profound sense of sadness to this piece, which compliments the laughter. It makes for a moving tale that finds a working balance between comedy and pathos, and when the next array of televised talent shows begin, you may just find you have a newfound appreciation for those who bravely square up to Simon Cowell and the millions of people watching at home, but simply can’t hold a note.

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About Stefan Pape

Stefan Pape is a film critic and interviewer who spends most of his time in dark rooms, sipping on filter coffee and becoming perilously embroiled in the lives of others. He adores the work of Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, and won’t have a bad word said against Paul Giamatti.

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