There’s a moment in Florence Foster Jenkins in which Hugh Grant’s St Clair Bayfield, Florence’s husband, quotes Beethoven to the pianist Cosme McMoon. “A few wrong notes may be forgiven, but singing without feeling cannot” he tells McMoon, who is still in shock after the discovery of Jenkins’ screeching singing voice.
It’s a line which is central to Stephen Frears’ film about the American socialite who, as its poster claims, is considered by some as the world’s worst singer. Not as much a biopic as it is a celebration of Jenkins’ steadfast personality, the fact that Nicholas Martin’s pitch perfect screenplay is given breathing space from the facts and figures allows the film some truly hilarious moments of comedy and a final narrative flourish that is nothing short of beautiful.
Kudos must be payed to the film’s marketing department which cleverly made sure that the musical performances from Meryl Streep’s Jenkins were absent from its trailers. The fact that most audiences will have no idea what to expect from the singing will only heighten the sense of anticipation that is built up during the film’s first twenty-minutes.
When we do finally get to hear Jenkins sing, it is a genuinely hilarious pay-off. I’m talking tears streaming down your face hilarious which, considering I had previously been discussing the last time I had seen a truly funny film, had me and the entire audience in stitches. It is arguably the film’s biggest laugh, but through Martin’s script and the flawless performances, Florence Foster Jenkins is easily the most consistently entertaining films that I’ve seen in quite some time.
The three central performances are outstanding and key to the comedic elements of the film. You have a Hugh Grant who is on the very top of his game, seemingly revitalised by the talent he’s working with both in front of and behind the camera. Here, he gets the rare opportunity to play a complex character in the form of Jenkins’ husband, St Clair Bayfield.
On the surface, he appears to be a devoted husband who will go above and beyond, even bribe, to make sure that his wife’s perceptions of her singing aren’t ruined by the reviews or laughter of the general public. Yet his relationship with his wife is a sexless one, so he spends his nights in a separate apartment with his lover Kathleen. The ambiguity of his relationship with these two women, as well as whether or not his actions are more harmful than helpful are just some of the debates the film surprisingly creates.
Then you have the film’s biggest revelation in The Big Band Theory’s Simon Helberg, who plays Jenkins’ new pianist Cosme McMoon. The physicality of his performance means that the actor has to do very little to make you laugh; he’s an awkward and giggly character who comes very close to stealing the show from the other two leads.
Finally, the legend that is Meryl Streep puts in one of her most memorable turns in recent years, working with what is perhaps her best script in recent years. It’s light enough for her to have some fun with the character, but equally there’s an underpinning of something sad about Jenkins’ personality which allows the actress to flex her dramatic muscles as well.
It’s the unexpected drama that is Florence Foster Jenkins to something really special. What Nicholas Martin and Stephen Frears manage to do so well is make you wholly empathise with Jenkins. It may be a case that the you might be laughing at her for some of the time, but I’d be surprised if you weren’t completely on her side by the end of the film. This is never truer than in the film’s final few moments which, without giving too much away, literally puts you in the mindset of Jenkins. It’s a genius moment which made me cry.
The combination of performance and writing is the film’s biggest selling point, but Frears brings something to the table too. His most enjoyable film since High Fidelity in 2000, the director brings with him a 1940’s Hollywood aesthetic which I loved. The look and feel of the picture is one that harks back to the days of backlot set designs, and the costumes are stunning.
With everybody at the top of the game, Florence Foster Jenkins is a towering success. It’s a film which manages to perfectly balance the comedy and drama without ever drifting too much into one or the other. It made me cry tears of laughter and sadness, had me 100% invested in the characters and, even now, has me replaying some of the questions and character motivations in my head. It has substance and style, some wonderful performances and hits all the wrong notes in the right places.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com