Florence Foster Jenkins is designed as a crowdpleaser and works that far. Meryl Streep’s eccentric lead character is fun but lacks pathos, which undermines her emotional impact.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy New York socialite who somehow managed to attract a public following with her godawful off-key operatic renditions of Verdi, Mozart et al. Now, all these decades later, she’s back in the spotlight with two films based on her. I recently reviewed one of them, Marguerite (2015), which was only recently released in Australia. While this French film transposes Jenkins’ story to twenties France and reworks it, the American take is more conventional, adopting a biopic form, although realism takes a back seat to entertainment value.
There’s a staginess about the sets – most of the action takes place in a few rooms. Indeed, the movie itself has a theatrical tone to it, which is signalled from the get-go: the opening scene is of Florence (Meryl Streep) in an amateur theatre production MCd by her plummy, debonair and utterly talentless English “actor” husband, St Clair Bayfield (impressively played by Hugh Grant). Ludicrously cast as a Valkyrie, poor Florence is lowered awkwardly to the stage from on high in an uncomfortable harness attached to wires, as stagehands backstage groan under her considerable weight and strive to control her descent. Thus, she is set up as a figure of fun.
Streep has a ball in her role as Jenkins, hamming it up just as you might imagine. The result is an enjoyable character, eccentric, colourful and often amusing. However, Streep overplays, pushing her character towards the grotesque, in the process undermining her humanity. Her physical presentation doesn’t help. She is padded up around the midriff, which produces a strange, unnatural and unflattering body shape, accentuated rather than camouflaged by her extravagant costumes.
Florence works well enough as a comedic figure, but at the expense of her tragic side, which comes to light when she retires to bed after a day of heavy socialising. It is evident that she is unwell. She is so exhausted that her dutiful husband must remove her wig and lashes – she has alopecia. It turns out that she is suffering from end-stage syphilis, having been infected many years ago by her first husband.
Hence, their relationship is platonic and you can’t help but wonder why they are married. They have an “arrangement” whereby he has his own apartment (and a hot younger lover, whom he keeps from his wife). Nevertheless, St Clair is genuine in his caring and declarations of love for Florence. Yet for all his solicitude, he seems more a protector, manager and chaperone to Florence than a husband, and I didn’t buy their relationship. Thus, their later private interactions as Florence’s condition worsens are emotionally underwhelming when they should be heartbreaking.
Of course, we’re waiting for the big moment when we hear La Jenkins sing, and it’s teasingly delayed. When it comes, poor Flo is every bit as dire as hoped for and we chortle on cue (a recording of the real Florence Foster Jenkins is played during the credit roll – Streep hits all the right wrong notes).
Buoyed by her performances at private functions attended by her social circle, who do not dare let their pain show, and much to her protective husband’s chagrin, Florence announces that she will hire out Carnegie Hall for her public debut performance. In preparation, she takes on a pianist (Simon Helberg, who thrives in his role, providing some of the funniest moments as he girns his way through his Faustian dilemma, weighing the financial benefits of accompanying Florence against the damage he is doing to his musical reputation).
The Carnegie Hall concert is a welcome development, upping the ante dramatically, and opening the way for the filmmakers to answer a question that is surely on every viewer’s mind: how did a singer as disastrously off-key as Florence Foster Jenkins become so popular with the public? Alas, the challenge is ducked. On the big night, the packed audience of mostly servicemen returned from the war (it is 1944) laugh and jeer when Florence lets loose with her woeful warbling. Pandemonium threatens until a sexy young broad (part of Flo’s inner circle) stands up and demands some generosity from the boys, reminding them that Florence is a loyal supporter of the war effort and was responsible for them being issued with free tickets to the show. OK in the context of the movie and this single concert, but we remain in the dark about the real Flo’s popularity with her real following. That’s disappointing, because it is the most fascinating aspect of the FFJ phenomenon.
It doesn’t make much sense to compare Florence Foster Jenkins with Marguerite because they are such different films. Whatever, the latter is a far more complex and interesting take on the lead character.
And it is difficult not to contrast the lead performances. Marguerite is played by the wonderful Catherine Frot, who brings such vulnerability, dignity and pathos to her character that she is never a figure of fun. She is endearing. On balance, she is more a tragic figure than a comedic one.
The reciprocal applies to Streep’s Jenkins. This is as much a function of the characterisation as the acting. Streep does the job assigned to her, and does it well, but in the end we do not feel as much for her character as we should, and this detracts from the emotional power of the film. It’s fun and entertaining, but not much more.
Movie website: http://www.patheinternational.com/en/fiche.php?id_film=804
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