Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) ☆ ☆ ☆

The formula for this movie is seemingly not a promising one.  A drama about a woman whose singing is decidedly flat, and who is enabled to give concerts only because she is rich, seems to have the deck stacked against it.  Ah, but this deck includes marvelous Meryl Streep as the coddled woman of the title, and director Stephen Frears, and a really strong performance from Hugh Grant, who should have been a major star but derailed his own career two decades ago.  That this movie exists at all is surprising; that it is pretty good is remarkable.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a wealthy patron of the arts in New York City from the first world war through the second.  Her love of music extends to singing, at which she tries very hard, but she is not professionally good.  She is supported in her endeavors by her husband (Grant) and a new pianist they have recruited (Simon Helberg).  Her past concerts have been private, but she finally succeeds in bringing her talent to the public.  That’s the story, based on fact, and it is quite effective.

Frears’ film rests on two simple conceits.  The first is that Florence just doesn’t realize she’s not very good.  She is always praised by those around her, including her vocal coach (David Haig), who arranges to travel to Florida when she gives her concerts.  This mollycoddling is an unwelcome surprise to her new pianist (Helberg), whose dream job suddenly turns into a nightmare.  But everyone simply wants the best for Florence, who is as kind and generous a person as there is, and who has such enthusiasm (as well as a hidden illness) that one cannot help but empathize with her wish to fill the world with her music.

Florence is rich, and one cannot escape the notion that people are simply being nice to her because they want financial support from her.  That is certainly true — even of her husband — and yet the movie plays down this angle, preferring the idea that money is just a prop to bring great music to the masses.  When Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) asks for a thousand dollars to ensure a concert takes place, he is asking for the sake of the music.

The second conceit is trickier.  Despite the fact that when Florence sings, some people laugh, the film itself does not ridicule her.  Indeed, we are persuaded that simply going onstage and attempting these songs is a brave, endearing, wonderful thing to do.  Audiences respond to her concerts and recordings because they identify with her lack of polish; her singing is more real because it sounds like so many of us would sound in the same circumstances.  The story has to have this element to work, and mostly it does.

Meryl Streep is as remarkable as ever, and has one transcendent scene when, near the end, Florence imagines how she sounds, or wants to sound, to an audience.  Hugh Grant is just as good, striking the perfect balance between doting husband, needful cheat and possible scoundrel.  His is a deft performance that carries the story forward, ultimately providing its finest poignancy.  Florence Foster Jenkins, like other Stephen Frears films, is most successful in its understanding of how people relate, and how the special tiny moments of a life are what we remember most fondly.  ☆ ☆ ☆.  22 August 2016.

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