Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. United Kingdom, 2016. Qwerty Films, Pathe Pictures International, BBC Films. Screenplay by Nicholas Martin. Cinematography by Danny Cohen. Produced by Michael Kuhn, Tracey Seaward. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Production Design by Alan MacDonald. Costume Design by Consolata Boyle. Film Editing by Valerio Bonelli. Academy Awards 2016. Golden Globe Awards 2016.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was a New York socialite who treated her city to her screechy, tone-deaf voice in a now infamous Carnegie Hall concert and one very popular recording. Modern notoriety, where socialites achieve fame via sex tapes and red carpet appearances without worrying about being talented, is coldly ambitious, but Jenkins was, according to director Stephen Frears, passionate about what she did and motivated by the love of music. Already the subject of a number of plays and even a film from France the same year as this one, Marguerite starring Catherine Frot, Jenkins is given the skimmed biography treatment in Frears’ frothy and charming film, focusing on the main points leading up to the Carnegie show. Jenkins’ husband (Hugh Grant) hires a pianist (Simon Helberg) to accompany her daily singing lessons, the young man completely unaware of what he has gotten into until she warbles her first notes and he realizes the depths to which a starving artist must sink to make (admittedly very good) money. Helberg witnesses life in the wealthy woman’s house as it goes on, full of peace and love despite some oddities, like the fact that Grant has another apartment in the city with another woman (a wonderful Rebecca Ferguson) and Florence seems to have complications with her health. Helberg’s perspective should be the frame upon which this one stands but it never really happens; he is as confused about how he feels about her at the end of the film as he was at the beginning, his performance as opaque as his character’s stymied judgments, while the journey for the woman in question is also as muddled. In one of the plays about her, Glorious, her putting on a concert at Carnegie Hall was a risky financial proposition that endangered her vast wealth and it provides the dramatic stakes. Financial worry is never mentioned here, instead the focus is on some kind of exploration of Jenkins as a Margaret Dumont in a world of Marx Brothers, unaware of her voice’s comical nature and, we wonder, what will happen if she is made to face it. Streep is divinely funny in the lead character and, most impressive, does her own bad singing, but it’s a shallow portrayal in a shallow movie: Florence can never come to a full awareness or acceptance of her diminished abilities because there is, to my knowledge, no proof that she ever did, but on the other hand the movie has to be about something, so they sneak in a few moments of clarity to make sure we get some kind of ending. As a result of so little dramatic exploration, Streep is left out in the cold, a deft actor giving a mannered and breathy performance that officially begins her Maggie Smith period of playing roles where she’s in drag as herself (that is, provided you’ve been avoiding that nagging assertion in films like The Iron Lady and August: Osage County). The screenplay isn’t, according to the credits, based on any of the previous works about Jenkins and, possibly to avoid the kind of legal trouble that plagued and delayed Emma Thompson’s Effie Gray, likely keeps its historical details simple on purpose, making for the lesser in the line of Frears’ Feisty Ladies movies (or if you include his surprisingly shallow Lance Armstrong biopic, in his efficient and enjoyable Cult Of Personality films). That said, even as a shallow Mrs. Henderson Presents, this one does provide a lot of laughs and has a very warm core, smartly celebrating the heartfelt realities of what seem like life’s cold exteriors: Grant has a mistress but he genuinely loves and is sincerely invested in protecting his wife from ridicule, and people are committed to her because of how beneficial she is to them financially but they also care a great deal for her as well (and the fact that Helberg never really comes to do the same is all the more strange). The supporting cast is top-notch, I don’t recall the last time Grant was this affecting, while Nina Arianda steals her few scenes as the brassy second wife of a millionaire who makes a gesture of friendship at a critical moment of the subject’s life. It’s a film that reminds us of the dubious value of having personality despite having no skill, but it also reminds us that you can choose how you see your life even when the world is laughing in your face.