FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (UK | France/PG/110mins)
Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Helberg, John Kavanagh.
THE PLOT: New York socialite and patron of the arts Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) has always had a love of music. When she hears Lily Pons (Aida Garifullina) sing, she becomes convinced that the time is right for her to start taking lessons again, with a view to staging her own concert. The trouble is, Florence Foster Jenkins cannot sing in tune and although she is surrounded by people who support her, none of them seem to want to tell her the truth.
THE VERDICT: ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ is the second film released this year to tell the story of the woman branded “The World’s Worst Opera Singer”, the first being the French film ‘Marguerite’, which came out in Irish cinemas in March. Meryl Streep takes the lead here as the titular character, and although she makes Foster Jenkins sweet, enthusiastic and likeable, there is the feeling that there is information missing in this tale; information that could have made the film feel more rounded and engaging.
As mentioned, Maeryl Streep is on her usual fantastic form as Florence Foster Jenkins, and it is on her shoulders that the entire film rests. Streep makes the character likeable and childlike with her enthusiasm, but the naiveté that the character is imbued with makes her frustrating from time to time, as she seems to lack any self-awareness. Hugh Grant is on charming form as Foster Jenkins’ husband St Clair Bayfield, but the character has also got a selfish streak as he leads a double life, one that he hides from his trusting wife. Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory fame plays Foster Jenkins’ gentle and sweet pianist, and although he tries to be the voice of reason throughout the film, continually asking why Foster Jenkins is never told the truth about her voice, he soon succumbs to his own selfish whims as he gets the chance to play prestigious music venues. The rest of the cast features Rebecca Ferguson, Christian McKay and our own John Kavanagh.
Nicholas Martin’s screenplay jumps into Foster Jenkins’ story in the middle of events, before going back to reveal truths and secrets about the character throughout the film. There is enough in the film for the audience to root for the tone deaf but enthusiastic title character, but the characters that orbit her end up feeling selfish and borderline cruel. Although it is a fact that Foster Jenkins did perform in public, the film never quite makes it clear as to why no-one in her inner circle seems to have made an effort to tell her she was more likely to be ridiculed than adored. Perhaps it was a fear of being cruel, or perhaps because Foster Jenkins was wealthy; whatever the case, the film doesn’t seem to be able to make the reason plain, and this is a major issue.
As director, Stephen Frears makes ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ light and sweet, with a dark undertone that makes itself known through the cracks in Foster Jenkins’ life. There are problems with the film and its determination not to look at the people who lie to Foster Jenkins by omission and their reasons, but the film is well paced and, although the singing in the film is deliberately terrible, there is blessedly little of it.
In all, ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ feels a little by the numbers, but can never make its mind up as to whether it is an underdog story or one about the power of lies. Whatever the case, Streep, Grant and Helberg are on fine form, it’s just a shame that the motivations of some characters is never clear, and the film never tries to be anything other than entertaining, but not that special. After all, Florence Foster Jenkins’ determination and single mindedness was indeed what made her special.
RATING: 3/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

Florence Foster Jenkins
Review by Brogen Hayes
3.0By the numbers
  • filmbuff2011

    Florence Foster Jenkins has the slight misfortune to follow just a few weeks after the French film Marguerite. Anyone who saw that film will know that it was based on the life of the woman herself and had been re-versioned for more artistic French sensibilities. Stephen Frears’ new film goes straight to the source for a look at what could be described as the Ed Wood of the opera world.

    New York, 1944. With the war still raging on in Europe, Florence (Meryl Streep) is a socialite, heiress and opera singer famed among her small social circles. Her devoted husband St Clair (Hugh Grant) attends to her needs and manages her too, though they’re not as close as they used to be. He’s actually carrying on a relationship with a younger woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). Florence has dreams of performing in front of a large audience of thousands in Carnegie Hall. St Clair isn’t going to crush her dreams, even if he’s quite guarded about who sees her perform. In reality, Florence is way off-key and screechy like someone is strangling a cat. People are too polite to say anything. The entrance of new pianist Cosme (Simon Helberg) is the next step on her way to apparent stardom. He’s shocked at her inability to sing properly, but reluctantly plays along with St Clair’s charade. How long can St Clair maintain this fantasy that she’s popular for all the wrong reasons?

    Florence Foster Jenkins, the film, is a delightful exercise in the power of never giving up on one’s dreams, even in the face of adversity. What this lady lacked in talent she made up for in spirit and the determination to keep on going. Of course, she didn’t really know how bad she was at singing. The inability of anyone close to her to gently shatter her ambitions is at the heart of the film. Less drawn-out than Marguerite, this film is more whimsical and relies heavily on the absurdity of the situation. The focuse is on the gentle humour of the situation, but there is a heart to the story which wins out at the end.

    This is in no small part due to Streep. It’s a tricky role to pull off, given that she had to make the character blissfully unaware of her lack of singing talent. But in her safe pair of hands, or rather deliberately wobbly vocal chords, Florence comes across as decent, vulnerable and altogether human. We laugh at Florence, to be sure, but we also feel sympathy for her. Who hasn’t tried to succeed and failed miserably? It’s a story we can all relate to. Grant, in a charming, very Grant performance, provides strong support as the man who is stage-managing her career. Helberg is hilarious – his occasional quizzical and dubious looks are a highlight of the film. There’s plenty of Irish talent both on and offscreen too – Consolata Boyle provided the sumptuous costumes, though Irish audiences are unlikely to accept veteran actor John Kavanagh as an Italian soprano.

    If there’s one fault in the film, it’s in the lack of depth to the story. Although Frears does a good job at laying out the story in an entertaining fashion (like with The Program recently), he does so in a basic manner and never really gets to the heart of Florence herself. Audiences have come to expect a bit more from Frears. However, there’s still much to enjoy here and the closing titles will certainly raise a mild, surprising chuckle. ***