Florence Foster Jenkins

(2016) *** Pg-13
110 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Stephen Frears. Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, David Haig.

/content/films/4947/1.jpg“A few wrong notes may be forgiven, but singing without feeling cannot.” Dubiously attributed to Beethoven, this epigram is offered in defense of the notoriously bad soprano Florence Foster Jenkins in the new cinematic account of her musical ventures. An irrepressible New York heiress whose money enabled her amateur singing career, Jenkins butchered opera selections and art songs while achieving a level of camp popularity, all winningly recreated by star Meryl Streep and director Stephen Frears in the comedy-drama Florence Foster Jenkins.

The original screenplay by Nicholas Martin cleanly lays out the circumstances of Jenkins’ insular life, as it was in 1944. Her longtime partner and common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield (a charming and funny Hugh Grant) lovingly attends to her, lining up vocal coaches, accompanists, and private recitals at The Verdi Club (which she owns). After a gentle bedtime ritual of removing Florence’s wig and lulling her to sleep with a Shakespearean sonnet, Bayfield repairs to a second apartment and a second woman, his girlfriend Kathleen Weatherley (Rebecca Ferguson).

In reference to Jenkins, Bayfield says, “Our marriage is a thing of the spirit.” It’s also a mutually beneficial arrangement, crisply established in the film’s early scenes of Bayfield hiring pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory) and inviting back vocal coach Carlo Edwards (David Haig). With a knowing nod, Edwards says to Bayfield, “She spoils us all, doesn’t she?” She does, but—at least as depicted here—Bayfield is no simple cad. He legitimately cares about Jenkins’ feelings and takes attentive responsibility for them, including payoffs to “music lovers” and “reviewers.”

That responsibility comes to a head when Jenkins becomes fixated on performing at Carnegie Hall, a dream Bayfield cannot deny her but one fraught with snares he may not be able to contain. Bayfield must lean on Edwards and McMoon for their support in maintaining the elaborate charade. McMoon, in particular, finds himself doing inordinate heavy lifting at the piano but also in his role as a new friend to the dotty coloratura. As the newest member of the family, McMoon also serves as an entry for the viewer to this strange world.

Earlier this year, the French film Marguerite took a looser approach to the same material, while offering a more intellectually and tonally subtle take. Frears takes a somewhat brighter, more populist tack with Florence Foster Jenkins and a more historically accurate one. Jenkins makes for a legitimately fascinating central character in her need for the spotlight, her pure love of music, and the self-doubts she uses all her will to banish. Not surprisingly, Streep expertly shades every eccentricity, embodying Jenkins in her musical waywardness (it takes a hard-working singer to sing this badly, note for note) and her deterioration due to syphilis, the most shameful wrinkle in a poignant personal life.

The critic is the villain in Florence Foster Jenkins, which sides with Jenkins and Bayfield in repelling the “mockers and...scoffers” and propping up the dreamers. Yes, Jenkins serves as an example of runaway privilege, but her funny-sad story cannot help but win her sympathy. She may not have had an angelic voice, but in the end, Jenkins earns her wings.

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