Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

I can recall a period in my life where me, my mother and my sister watched American Idol during it’s early years. We particularly enjoyed the start of the season where ordinary people auditioned before Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell to determine whether or not someone had the chops to make it big and I imagined America laughed and cringed when someone made a complete and utter fool of him or herself if he or she didn’t ha ve what some may call “dulcet tones.” I know I surely did, and millions of Americans may have laughed to from the comfort of their own homes.

American Idol didn’t exist back in 1944, but if it did, there is no doubt that Florence Foster Jenkins would have been laughed at because if you heard her sing, you would think that pancakes were flatter but no. She took lessons, she had a philandering husband as a benefactor, a pianist who couldn’t believe his ears at what he heard accompanying his piano but she had courage to live out her dream as an opera singer performing a sold out venue at Carnegie Hall and maybe that is what the movie Florence Foster Jenkins is ultimately about: a woman who wanted to share her gift for music during a dark period in American history and was driven by her passion, courage and the people who believe in her.

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Image By Neon Tommy, via Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Frears’ latest biopic stars the national treasure known as Meryl Streep as the tone-deaf title character. Once again, audiences will rest assured knowing that Meryl Streep gives a stellar but ear-piercing performance. Though she has built a legendary acting career by putting her extraordinary versatility on display time and time again, the only constant is her commanding presence and her scintillating appeal and she brings both to the courageous yet fragile role of Florence Foster Jenkins.

Streep’s performance is supported by that of Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg, cast in the roles of Florence’s doting husband St Clair Bayfield, and Cosmé McMoon an aspiring pianist who gets an earful when she encounters Madame Florence for the first time and much more when Bayfield encourages her short-lived stint as a concert performer.

Is Florence Foster Jenkins a movie with Oscar-credentials? The type of movie we’re going to hear about in the media for months on end as we head into awards season? More than likely not but I’d recommend seeing it if you enjoy a good Meryl Streep performance, or if you are a student of musical history, or if you need a break from the incessant summer blockbusters and just need a good laugh.

What is this movie outside of Meryl Streep though? Not much by my reckoning. Technically it is rather bland to behold with no outstanding achievements beyond the leading lady.

Stephen Frears directed a rather pedestrian picture that can come and go without a great degree of fanfare. The subject of his picture could assault the ears of her audience with a pitch capable of breaking glass or windows but the execution of Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t measure up to that amount of force. That’s to say, outside of Meryl Streep’s performance there is a serious lack of impact from this movie outside of a few key scenes.

Nicholas Martin’s screenplay is fairly easy to follow. The film follows Madame Foster’s progression from when she is awestruck and inspired by a Lily Pons concert to when she is on her deathbed, aware that the world knows of her “singing talents” yet proud of the fact that she lived her dream of bringing music and joy to others. There are a few filmic moments of Florence Foster Jenkins yet the writing left expertise to be desired.

The supporting cast, including Grant, Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, John Sessions, Brid Brennan, John Kavanagh, do their utmost to lift this movie and that in of itself is admirable.

Danny Cohen’s cinematography is banal, Alexandre Desplat’s music is always welcome in a film, Valerio Bonelli’s editing is fluid, Alan MacDonald’s production design is very well done, Consolata Boyle’s costumes are beautiful, the art direction is practical but effective but ultimately, I felt that all of the components that made this movie failed to measure up to the glow that Meryl Streep brought to the picture.

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Image by BBC Films & Pathé Pictures International

I found Florence Foster Jenkins to be a come-and-go motion picture. Come to see Meryl Streep add another fantastic performance to an already distinguished body of work, everything else isn’t much but it’s worth staying for, but once its done you can go home satisfied by a practically amusing feat at the movies.

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