Florence Foster Jenkins: Meryl Streep Shines in Frears Amusing but Conventional Biopic

florence_foster_jenkins_posterStephen Frears’s amusing, fact-inspired Florence Foster Jenkins shares a lot of similarities with Marguerite, Xavier Giannoli’s French film, which premiered at last year’s Venice Film Fest.

In both stories, the screenwriter, here British TV vet Nicholas Martin, makes sure that the movie is as much about the heroine, a very wealthy socialite named Florence who insists on singing despite being very bad at it, as it is about her loving husband and rest of her supporting entourage.

Frears and his writer have made a shrewd decision not to make straightforward, chronological biopic of the infamous rich diva.  The real Florence Foster Jenkins, born in 1868, toured Pennsylvania as a child piano prodigy, then taught piano lessons until an arm injury.  Instead, their movie is set at the end of WWII, in 1944, focusing on the mature Jenkins, inherited a fortune from her father and invested it in becoming a well-known musical philanthropist in New York society..


Our Grade: B

Teaming on screen for the first time, the indefatigable Meryl Streep shows great chemistry with Hugh Grant, who plays her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, an actor by career, but like her, not particularly a good one.  Bayfield claims to love Florence dearly, which he may, but he maintains a double life, in New York, where he has a younger mistress, Kathleen (played by the Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson).

florence_foster_jenkins_5_frears_streep_grantThe couple are generous patrons of the arts, especially music, which is the passionate vocation, avocation of Florence, who is running a beloved Vivaldi Club, a ladies’ music appreciation society whose fundraising spectacles display feature Florence at the center, bedecked with wings lowered from the rafters on wires.  (It was and still is a campy spectacle to behold)

Their whole life is based on illusion and deception: St. Claire, like the others around her, pretend that she is a good, professional singer. It’s not an easy task, considering that her singing talent is limited and that she insists on performing in public.

On one level, the movie is a classic love story, the tale of a man who loves his wife so much he’ll go to any lengths to protect her. On another, it’s a study of a passionate obsession.  It would have been a different film if it only revolved around Florence, as a sad, delusional femme, who did not know her limitations.

On another, the movie explores the notion of open marriage.  While Florence and Bayfield share strong passion for music, and send a good deal of time together, they have an unconventional living arrangement, one that allows him to spend his nights with his mistress in a separate apartment, paid for by Florence.

florence_foster_jenkins_4_frears_streepIn order to keep Florence happy, he must engage in various levels of deception. The easy level is Kathleen. The hardest task is maintaining for Florence the illusion that she is a good singer, which is difficult because not only is Florence a terrible singer, she insists on singing in huge public venues like the Carnegie Hall and infamously recording albums.

Director Frears does not dwell on the humiliating aspects of the story and he doesn’t encourage us to mock her or even feel sorry for her. In some moments, we both laugh at–and with–her but it’s not a nasty feeling.

And Frears is good at varigating the film’s tone, which goes from the dramatic to the comedic, and from the serious and heavy to the frivolous, but there is no nastiness or wickedness in the presentation.

Florence—and her conduct–is an absurd woman, full of contradictions, but we get to see her through her husband’s perspective. The director also gets a good, easy-going performance from Grant who is extremely well cast as Bayfield, a real cad but a human and lovable one.

As expected, the consummate professional Streep is precise in her bad and atrocious singing, and concise in her movements on stage, turning the outrageous femme into an engaging character that deserves our infectious and sympathetic attention.  She makes a very strong case that an artist is a person who’s utterly devoted and passionate about his métier–even if she doesn’t get public recognition.  I will not be surprised if Stree again tops herself and earns her 20th Best Actress Oscar nomination.

florence_foster_jenkins_14_frearsOf the secondary cast, Simon Helberg (TV’s Big Bang Theory) stands out as Cosme McMoon, the overqualified pianist enlisted to accompany Florence throughout her grand follies.

Rebecca Ferguson, who made such an impact in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, elevates the part of the mistress above its limitations as a type.

Martin’s first feature screenplay is a bit too straight and flat to contain the larger-than-life heroine at its center, and as noted, it avoids dealing with the more factual and disturbing aspects of Florence’s life.  As is well known, she famously suffered from syphilis for decades, which she had contracted from her first husband, but  Martin barely mentions that. (There is a speculation that this disease might have affected her lack of mental welfare).  He relies on exposition and light humor, instead of offering a smarter and wittier and ironic treatment.

Though known for his versatility, Stephen Frears is still an underestimated director by many critics, perhaps because he is not an auteur (unlike his contemporaries, Mike Leigh and Terence Davies).  Even so, Florence Foster Jenking adds yet another panel to his chronicles about strong and eccentric women, which include The Queen with Helen Mirren, Cheri with Michelle Pffieffer, and Philomena with Judi Dench.  The Queen and Philomena were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and the former earned Mirren a well deserved Best Actress.

florence_foster_jenkins_11_frears_streepMostly set indoors, and shot in London and Liverpool (standing in for Manhattan), the film displays modest production values–with the possible exception of Florence’s flamboyant costumes.  Frears’ direction is functional but impersonal, lacking in-depth and passion for the material, but it’s an enjoyable, crowd pleasing picture, whose raison d’etre is serving as a star vehicle for the incredible Meryl Streep.





Released by Paramount, August 12, 2016

MPAA Rating: PG

Running time: 110 minutes

Production companies: Qwerty Films, Pathe, BBC Films

Director: Stephen Frears

Screenwriter: Nicholas Martin

Producers: Michael Kuhn, Tracey Seaward

Cinematographer: Danny Cohen

Editor: Valerio Bonelli

Production designer: Alan McDonald

Costume designer: Consolata Boyle

Music: Alexandre Desplat