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FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (UK 2016) ***
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg
Review by Gilbert Seah
As one magazine writer aptly put: Meryl Streep has added one more talent to her curriculum vitae – the ability to sing flat.
Based on true events, the film is based on the character Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), an heiress and socialite in New York who owns a music club, the Verdi. She, though ill in health, lives for music, aspiring to become an opera singer with the help of her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and her pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg). Florence’s first words in the film: “Music is my life!” But the truth is that unknown to her, she has generally poor singing ability.
It is no doubt that a large part of the film’s humour is derived from Florence’ awful singing and the observation of the reactions of those listening to her. Frears’ camera relies too heavily on both. The camera lingers on McMoon, Florence’s pianist as well as Bayfield’s facial mannerisms too much for comfort.
As far as performances go, Hugh Grant stands out extremely well as the loving long-suffering yet cheating husband. Streep delivers another unforgettable performance, maybe even another Oscar nominated one. Simon Helberg (from TV’s THE BIG BANG THEORY) is amusing to watch and shines in one key scene. But it is relative newcomer Nina Arianda as the trampy admirer Agnes Stark who steals the show and every scene she is in.
The story has the audience believe that Bayfield is married to Florence but has not consummated their marriage. The marriage bond is still a loving one – aided no doubt by the fact that Bayfield has full access to her wealth. Bayfield has a mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson) living in Bayfield’s apartment that Florence has paid for. When Florence shows up one morning unannounced, the film turns into a bedroom farce, something the British are always good at.
The overlong film has two big climatic plot points. One is Florence’s grand performance at Carnegie Hall. Will she be able to perform to the satisfaction of everyone and not be ridiculed? The second is whether Florence will find out the truth about the secret that Bayfield has been keeping from her – that she cannot sing. Director Fears plays the first one out in grandeur and the second using Grant’s full acting capabilities.
The film looks and feels like New York City 1944. The vintage cars (used rather sparingly), props, wardrobe and hair help create the atmosphere. Music by Alexandre Desplat is always a pleasure to the ears though his music is clouded by the songs Streep sings.
Despite being a one-joke film with the one joke (Florence’s flat singing) stretched out too long, Frears’ film is still enjoyable, with sufficient comical distractions.
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS is as the ad says, a film that will be enjoyed more for the power of music and the power for one to accomplish more beyond ones means. Those in the theatre and music business will certainly find this film more amusing, being able to recognize all the famous classical operatic songs as well as the travails stars have to go through. FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS is a feel-good audience film that should delight Streep fans.
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