British director Stephen Frears’ latest biopic, about wannabe chanteuse Florence Foster Jenkins (the much Oscar-ed and “much-er” Oscar-nommed Meryl Streep), is a winning motion picture on many levels. Florence Foster Jenkins is at all times highly entertaining and occasionally downright hilarious. Based on the real life, eponymous Jenkins, it is a saga about a woman with limited (if any) vocal talent who somehow managed to pursue a career singing classical music. Let’s take a look at some of the dimensions Florence Foster Jenkins explores.
The stylish-looking film shot by London-born director of photography Danny Cohen (who was Academy Award-nominated for 2010’s The King’s Speech) has a “veddy” English sense of class. Florence makes it abundantly clear that Jenkins was a member of the 1% whose wealth enabled her, through a variety of ruses ranging from audience padding to influence peddling - of critics, elite figures in the rarified world of classical music, such as vocal coaches, music hall impresarios and the renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh), etc. - to buy her way onstage.
Jenkins’ English husband, the equally talent-challenged, would-be Shakespearean thespian, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, in what’s probably his best role in more than a decade, is generating well-deserved Oscar buzz), is her enabler and partner in crime (although, in all likelihood, the millionairess is probably deluded and - except for brief episodes of clarity - unaware as to how god awful her glass shattering screeching really is). So Florence clearly shows that wealth can buy an unworthy moneybags almost anything - from performing on exalted stages to, say, I don’t know, a presidential candidacy. The blonde showgirl Nina Ariandahas some scene-stealing screen time as a working class gal who, initially, reacts in candor to Jenkins during a performance. So the film notes that the realm of true talent is still a meritocracy, as Jenkins’ beleaguered pianist, played with aplomb by The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg, also reminds us.
Florence also has a lot to say about relationships - marital and otherwise. The son of an English earl (although born out of wedlock), the Bard-quoting Bayfield bestows a sense of aristocratic class on the American Jenkins. Is he really just an adulterous social climber or does Bayfield genuinely love his warbler wife?
[PLOT SPOILER ALERT:]Speaking of “earls,” English actor Christian McKay has a good turn as New York Post columnist Earl Wilson, who spurns Bayfield’s shameless attempt at bribery. Eventually, Wilson’s candidly ruthless review of Jenkins’ one-woman show at what many believe is America’s classiest musical venue proves to be fatal to the soprano. So Florence raises some points about the role of the critic and of criticism: If one attends a production the reviewer believes to be simply dreadful, should he/she report it as such, even if this will hurt participants? (A caveat here is that while critics should always be honest, if a show is not one’s particular cup of tea but many members of the audience are obviously enjoying it, in all fairness this should likewise be noted in the review.)
BTW, McKay’s casting is quite clever - in 2008 he played the latter in the absolutely delightful Me and Orson Welles, and viewers with fast eyes can glimpse a fleeting onscreen reference to that theater and movie maestro in Florence. In addition, Welles’ masterpiece, the faux biopic Citizen Kane, is about another (fictionalized) scion of privilege, Charles FOSTERKane.
Having said all this, the well-to-do Jenkins was no “heir-head.” She genuinely loved classical music and devoted much of her life to it. [PLOT SPOILER ALERT:]In a respectful way the script by Sussex, England-born Nicholas Martin sensitively reveals that she had the aptitude to pursue music in another mode but when a sickness prevented her from going that route, she channeled her passion for music into singing, despite the fact that Jenkins was no songbird. Also, much to the blueblood’s credit, when the soldiers fighting in World War II are disparaged she not only praises them but shows generosity to the boys in uniform. So Jenkins was no snob and one could argue that this film makes some important points about the role of women in patriarchal society - but here was a female endowed by great wealth, which enabled her to transcend (some but not all) gender barriers.
Presumably wearing padding (if not a fat suit per se), Meryl Streep fully incarnates Jenkins, endowing the fleshy, flashy, flawed dowager with her full humanity. Having appeared in the pop music-oriented 2008 Mama Mia! and last year’s Ricki and the Flash, as well as in the 2014 Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, Streep is no stranger to singing onscreen and appears to do her own deliberately off-key warbling in Florence. In addition, the woman widely believed to be America’s greatest big screen actress has also previously depicted real life historical figures, such as Margaret Thatcher in 2011’s The Iron Lady; another Brit, feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, in 2015’s great Sufragette; chef Julia Child in 2009’s rather progressive, anti-McCarthyite Julie & Julia;plus the almost certainly innocent Ethel Rosenberg in the 2003 HBO series Angels in America, playing the wrongfully electrocuted so-called “atomic spy” as an avenging angel.
Streep rather famously has scored three Academy Awards and 16 noms, and she is likely to be similarly recognized for her poignant portrayal of Jenkins, which ranges from the moving to the daffy. This might seem waggish, but Streep’s recent televised address at the Democratic National Convention may have been the intertwining of the presidential and Oscar races, with red-white-and-blue clad Streep tossing her hat into the Academy Award ring with her histrionic speech.
Hugh Grant is also great as Jenkins’ enabler-in-chief, Bayfield, who, with his English accent and airs, lends a tony façade to his American dame’s aspirations and pretentions. His performance shows depth as Grant keeps us guessing as to what this glad-hander’s real motives - and emotions - are. The once preternaturally charming and handsome Grant’s good looks are a bit ravaged, if not desiccated - the toll fame and scandal, plus appearing in one bad movie too often, presumably exact upon an artist. But with his vampirish, long teeth, he strikes the right chord as the failed Shakespearean playing another role, as a feckless, party-throwing philanderer-cum-devoted husband. But Grant endows his character with more beneath the surface to turn in a stellar performance that reveals he feels Love Actually (the name, but of course, of one of his numerous rom coms).
As Jenkins’ much put upon accompanist, Simon Helberg - who reportedly tickled his own ivories onscreen - may also be up for one of those coveted golden statuettes in the Best Supporting Actor category. Likewise for Nina Arianda (2011’s Midnight in Paris) as Agnes Stark, whose bimbo eruption may put her in contention for the female counterpart of that award. Veteran composer Alexandre Desplat created the film’s score. And Stephen Frears, whose oeuvre includes biopics about other historical personages - 2006’s The Queen, regarding Elizabeth and Prime Minister/War Criminal Tony Baloney Blair and 2015’s The Program,about the cheater-in-chief, Lance Armstrong - adds another jewel to his cinematic crown.
Although it may not be for all tastes, this critic highly recommends Florence Foster Jenkins. Just bring earplugs: You have been forewarned!
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell wrote Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. (See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.)