Review: Florence Foster Jenkins
Summer is the season where the idiocy in film is turned up to 11. Most films that open in these months are loud, brash, CGI-fueled excursions down well worn paths brimming with flat characters, stale plotlines and and cliché narratives. So when a movie attempts to offer something more personal and with more feeling, it can feel like an oasis in a never-ending desert. And when it succeeds on as many levels as Stephen Frear's Florence Foster Jenkins, the result is one adults headed to the movies should take note of.
Our eponymous protagonist, Florence Foster Jenkins (played masterfully by Meryl Streep), is a well-to-do socialite heiress with a love for music and the musical life of 1940s New York City. She also has an unabiding love for veterans, as World War II rages on overseas. Those complimentary loves drive her to want to perform, which is complicated by the fact that she has virtually no singing abilities.
Florence's husband, St. Clair Bayfield (played by Hugh Grant), dutifully shields her from the realities of her limitations. The pair enjoy a somewhat complicated marital relationship as Bayfield chooses not to pursue his acting career and instead focuses on Florence. Their relationship is further complicated by Florence's syphilis, which causes the two not to co-habitate.
When Florence wants to get serious about recording, she reaches out for a pianist and is charmed by by Cosmé McMoon (played by Simon Helberg). When Florence sets her sights on playing Carnegie Hall, all involved must work doubly hard to shield her from embarrassment and ridicule.
Every human being is flawed. Florence's flaw--an inability to sing, mixed with an overdose of obliviousness--happens to float right on the surface. But what Streep manages to do is fill the portrayal with everything else that made Florence. When the time comes for Florence to be embarrassed, it is impossible not to feel deeply sorry for her. Her well-meaning cluelessness plays as a virtue. A lesser actress would have struggled to create such a layered portrayal. Streep single-handedly elevates an already intriguing character. Whether Florence wins or loses, the audience is made to feel it all.
Meryl Streep makes this film sing and it is a beautiful tune. But her supporting cast contributes to what is ultimately a fun ride. Hugh Grant channels his inner Colin Firth as the gentleman who would do anything to protect his lady. It is his heartfelt performance that makes the delusional world Florence lives in feel like mercy and compassion. The film does seem a bit lost at times, with stark cuts between the drama and the comedy, but more than anything, the cast makes it tough not to smile through it.
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