Once More, with Feeling: A review of Florence Foster Jenkins

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You might be forgiven for thinking that ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ is going to be a laugh riot. Meryl Streep as ‘The World’s Worst Singer’ with Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg from The Big Bang Theory to provide the comedy reactions, it seems on the outside like a British farce befitting Hyacinth Bucket.

Yet what you get is something that is far less funny and far more tragic, a drama that has a few intentional laughs and a comedy that will reduce you to tears.

Meryl Streep stars superbly as the titular Florence, a woman in the twilight of her life whose passion and desire to sing outweighs her talent. Set in the 1940’s towards the end of the war, the Film follows Florence as she aims to perform at Carnegie Hall, despite ill health and with her devoted husband keeping the truth about her ability from her.

Jenkins hires a pianist, Cosme McMoon played by Simon Helberg, to accompany her, and it’s through him that we discover the bizarre and tragic life that surrounds her. Though initially the events are treated with lighthearted humour, Florence is a terrible singer and Cosme can’t contain his disbelief or his laughter but as things continue, the layers peel away and we begin to sympathise with her.

Streep is at her best, proving that, to pretend to sing badly, you need to be able to sing well and she commands attention with every scene.

This isn’t just the story of a bad singer, this is the story of one woman’s passion and the devotion of her husband, St Clair Bayfield played by Hugh Grant. His performance is the best of his career, both quietly heartbreaking and endearingly supportive, his love for Florence is raw and powerful and it will leave you a little wrung out.

The secrets that are revealed during the course of the Film, in particular, the ill health of Florence, give depth to the central couple. Though Bayfield may retire to his own house, paid for by Florence, at the end of every night, where he lives with his lover (Rebecca Ferguson), we don’t ever feel like he’s a bad guy.

He sticks by Florence, packing the theatres with her fans and paying off critics, giving her everything she asks for. We don’t doubt his devotion for a second and in many ways he’s the main character, following him as he struggles to keep the truth from his wife.

The Film subverts your expectations, instead of laughing at this woman you completely sympathise with her and some of the scenes in which she is laughed at by an audience are genuinely uncomfortable. It’s only because the Film has done so much to make you care about the characters that you don’t laugh, even when her singing is painful to the ear, you are far more angry at the audience.

It brings a couple of things to mind, in particular, the deluded singing of Hyacinth Bucket and the poor people who we see on talent shows. Does anyone stop to think that those people, walking onto a stage, believing they can sing are actually people? Maybe the producers behind those shows should stop and watch this Film, find out what the person is like behind the voice before putting them in the spotlight to be laughed at.

For Bayfield, his intention is never to ridicule his wife but rather to spare her from the unpleasant truth and to fulfil her dreams.

Elsewhere in the Film, the others characters also shine. Simon Helberg is fantastic as the slightly arrogant but wonderfully performed pianist, who initially only works with Jenkins to get a big paycheck but, as he begins to understand her, ends up as devoted to her as her husband.

There is a nice assortment of supporting characters throughout but Nina Arianda stands out as Mrs Stark, who initially ridicules Florence but ends up standing up for her.

The Film also looks fantastic. The spirit of 40’s New York is captured with real awe and beauty, the theatre spirit, all bulbs, brass and velvet give the Film its atmosphere. Which is all complemented by the lovely score by Alexandre Desplat and assured direction from Steven Frears, whose last Film, Philomena, was one of my favourites of 2013.

Last year, Danny Collins was the surprise music centred Film that captured my heart, going for drama rather than comedy, and, this year, Florence has touched me unexpectedly. I recommend you watch it but don’t go expecting a comedy because you’ll cry more than you’ll laugh.

Rating: A-

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