Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Film review: "Florence Foster Jenkins" (2016)

Joe and I were on holiday in London over the weekend.  After a long flight from Minneapolis, we got settled into our hotel, enjoyed some grub and a pair of pints, and figured we'd just make an early first night of it since we were pretty beat.  For the hell of it, I decided to see if by chance Florence Foster Jenkins was still showing anywhere.  Lo and behold, there was one theater in Leicester Square with an appropriate show time.  So a quick hop on the underground and before I knew it, we were sitting down for the film.

The theater was the smallest I've ever experienced in my life, with literally about twenty seats available.  Joe joked that I could tell everyone on the blog that the place was packed, and truthfully yes, there were only a couple of seats open.  Despite fighting some fatigue from the flight and brews, I was pretty excited that it worked out for us to see the film so last minute.

We are introduced to Meryl's character, Florence Foster Jenkins, as she is lowered from the rafters during a musical tableau as part of her participation in one of multiple organizations patroning the arts in 1940's New York.  Soon she confides in her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), that she would like to take singing lessons, and the two arrange for an instructor and begin to audition pianists.  During the auditions is where we first see Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon, the smiley, giggly accompanist whom Jenkins chooses. Quickly, however, we learn during her practice sessions that Florence's aspirations for performing border on the deulusional.  She's absolutely terrible.  The crowd in our theater totally ate up the scenes where Meryl is singing.  Joe and I cracked up as well, it's almost impossible not to.

As Bayfield indulges his wife's interests, Florence begins to perform for her society friends.  No one really has the nerve to tell her the truth about her lack of ability.  Her gal pals placate her and she ultimately gets the brilliant idea to stage a recital at Carnegie Hall.  Bayfield tries to completely control the audience list, as to prevent any bad press getting out and Florence discovering that most people are laughing at her, not praising her.  One critic does make it in, and depite her husband's best efforts, Florence eventually does read some terrible press.  The shock of it exacerbates her already fragile health (she contracted syphillis from her first husband on their wedding night) and we watch her finally decline.

Ok, let's break down a few things.  First and probably most notable is that the pic is thoroughly entertaining.  People were howling throughout the entire film.  Meryl does a fantastic job of butchering her arias, and like we've heard her say in interviews, she tried to first sing them well, and then learn where to go off.  That tactic proved successful.  I'm really hoping that the shear enjoyment the movie provides will make it a word-of-mouth box office success when it finally arrives in the States next month.  It's shot beautifully, and director Stephen Frears adeptly brings out the humanity in the film's title character, reminiscent of his recent female-driven biopics The Queen and Philomena. 

There were touching moments between Streep and Grant.  Although his character has a mistress and he seems to be a bit of a leech, we get a sense that he truly loves his wife, if not necessarily in a traditionally romantic way.  A failed actor himself, Bayfield could have easily fallen into the jealous husband type, resenting his wife's attention for performing badly, while he wonders why no one ever wanted to hire him to perform Shakespeare.  Instead, there's is a tender pairing, and I found myself rooting for both of them.

Simon Helberg was a riot throughout the film.  His facial expressions the moment he first realizes that his new patroness has no talent are worth the price of admission.  There's a really nice moment the two share at the piano.  Florence stops by his apartment unannounced and divulges how long the days feel when her husband is away.  Further confiding how she can no longer effectively play piano due to the effect syphillis had on her hand, she and McMoon join for an impromptu Chopin prelude, Cosmé playing with his left hand, Florence her right.

Spoiler:  I wasn't expecting Jenkins to actually die in the film.  One of my favorite moments in the film is at the end where, with Florence on her death bed, we get to hear what she wished her voice actually sounded like.  Here Meryl is performing a lovely song with her own voice, except trying to sound good, which she does.  This too was unexpected, yet delightful.  With the film already holding a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, I hope the praise continues as more reviews roll in when it hits U.S. theaters August 12.  This performance has Golden Globe written all over it, and Meryl will definitely be in the running for her 20th Oscar nomination.


  1. Jeff you should have said you were coming to London!

    I know that lovely cinema, it's so small! Was the bar open?

    I'm really glad you liked the film, I thought it was Meryl's most entertaining film in ages as a sheer crowd-pleaser!

    1. The bar was totally open. And seriously the theater we were in sat fewer than 20 people. Had a fantastic time in London. Love that city!

  2. Wooo...I'm so envious. I think I'll have to wait till Oct/Nov before I get to watch it. David.