FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS*** Concert in a Minor key


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)





WHEN THE LIGHTS slowly go up, we become aware of a single beam. Its narrow ray, we come to realize, illuminates a glowing flute of falling rice, descending, as if from a narrow portal in the sky, upon the head of a standing, statue-like monk, praying, perhaps for this blessing of the stuff of life. There emerges from the shadows of the stage a dozen or so figures…wanderers. They move with agonizing slowness, as if underwater, or as if the air is clogged with the burden of living. They carry long tree-like staffs: a moving forest. It is another element (the rice, the rain, the light, the forest) to complete an entire world, a dreamscape, magically panoramaed on the Sadlers Welles stage.

Songs of Wanderers, a dance performance from the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan really offers very little ‘dance’. For one thing, the principal performer – the monk – imbuing, as he does, the zen-like calm of the piece, never moves. The others sometimes either writhe in stiff contortions of agony, like upended insects, or drift, like dreams across the rice carpeted stage. From time to time a lone figure with a long squeegee type broom tries to part or clear or make a pattern – an understanding – in the drifts of golden rice – a Sisyphean task as the rain of rice – that bounty of heaven, perhaps in response to the suffering needy – never stops. His futile sweep and the footsteps of the performers on the rice create odd, abstract patterns, as if they were bent on leaving memories…some visual trace of existence.


There is no linear narrative in this piece of Zen meditation. The meditation – the unfolding of life – expresses itself over a few key ‘chapters’. First there is life, the rice descending upon the monk, the god. The emergence of the staffs that become forests morph into rods that encourage a sort of courtship and copulation…a union of bodies; that morph into protective enclosures. Perhaps the agonies that follow are the agonies of birth or of life itself. But they are balanced by the joyfulness of rice scattering abandon…of rice filled abundance. From the darkness emerges figures bearing bowls of fire – the final essential element from which the rice of the heavens is converted into food. And life.

At the end of the piece, after the performers have taken their bows, the sweeper continues his task. In ever widening swirls, he moulds from the rice (three tons of it) a meditative zen garden of widening circles…eradicating the past, obliterating the -futile- movements of the performers, leaving only a record of stillness and a sense, after all the wandering and agony, of harmony and of peace.