FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS is a genial enough movie, buoyed by the brilliance of its three principals: Meryl Streep as FFJ, frumpish in a fat suit, with a bald head (she suffered from syphilis as a result of an earlier marriage) looking out upon the world with eyes of self deluding naïveté; Hugh Grant as St Claire Bayfield, her husband: pitch perfect as her besotted, formal, faux upper class Englishman; an essentially honest man living a less than honest life. And Simon Helberg (from The Big Bang Theory) as Cosme McMoon, her incredulous pianist, through whose gob-smacked eyes we view the self-contained bubble of a world he’s found himself in.
This is the war time story of the eponymous Foster Jenkins: a tone deaf music loving society lady who’d convinced herself that hers was the voice of an angel. She was humored by her friends and tutors, who preferred the cash she gave them to the criticism they could have given her; and by her husband, blinded by love, over-protectiveness and her maintenance of his life style, which, since theirs was a celibate arrangement, included sharing a love nest with his lively paramour, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson from Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation).
The story builds to a climax when, moved to ‘repay’ and entertain the troops, FFJ books and hosts a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. There, away from the protective devotion of friends and family, she’ll finally have to confront reality in all its unsympathetic and bitchy force… to face the music as it were.
Director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things) never hides the layers of deception that keep Foster Jenkins in her gilded cocoon, but he does so with such a light touch – a slight of hand, really – that it becomes a story without villains. Like her theatrical audiences, our first response to hearing her sing, hearing her massacre what passes for opera, is one of hysterical laughter. It’s a very funny film: the sight of the sixty eight year old FFJ, dressed like a teenager and warbling hopelessly out of tune is priceless. But it’s too easy to laugh at her; the laughter quickly fades. For FFJ is so unworldly a person, so good natured and selflessly generous that you can but empathize with hubby and pianist in their need to protect her from the vile outside world…to simply sit back and be charmed.
If there is a complaint, it is that Frears and writer Nicholas Martin work so hard to keep the tone light – to keep away the darkness of a self deceiving woman dying of syphilis and preyed upon by an army of sycophants, one of whom is her husband, love her though he so clearly does – that you do feel the story that’s being told is overly superficial, even dishonest. Nevertheless, through his use of ever shifting perspectives (we mainly see FFJ through the eyes of others which lends the story both its whimsy and its emotional escape route), Frears manages to avoid the quasi documentary feel of so many bio movies…the result is a small movie with a big heart
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. With: Meryl Streep, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Helberg, Hugh Grant. Dir; Stephen Frears. Screenplay: Nicholas Martin. Cinematographer: Danny Cohen (The Danish Girl, Room). Composer: Alexandre Desplat (The Danish Girl, Suffragette, The Imitation Game)