Meryl’s Florence Foster Jenkins Sings Her Heart Out (Movie Review)

florence foster jenkins thumbIn recent years I have found myself at odds with viewing numerous period dramas about famous white people overcoming adversity and Meryl Streep performances where she plays the role very ‘big’. This is why it is nice to say that Florence Foster Jenkins is pretty darn delightful. Stephen Frears must have had real philomania for this story of a New York heiress known for her poor singing skills, as he has crafted a film that really finds heart in such a goofy story.



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Streep stars as Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy woman with various idiosyncrasies that make her unique, yet loved anyway. With the help of her common law husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), she has private showcase performances that express her love of music. Simon Helberg’s Cosme McMoon is hired as a pianist to help back Florence’s desire to be an opera singer. It is at this point we learn the truth.

Lots of credit goes to the physical performance of Streep, who must play a character with an awful singing voice. Streep, who really can sing, apparently performed live in a way that matched the real Florence in an effort to make this story come alive. Credit also goes to Helberg, who really does play piano and attempts to match the wild style of Florence, which the real Cosme was unprepared for. For a film with other aspects to keep in mind, these performances are impressively hilarious for just how spot on they are supposed to be, given the circumstances.

As far as the rest of the story, Florence (who has a love of potato salad and a fear of pointy objects) is cared for by the safe hands of her husband, Bayfield. While the inherent comedy comes from Florence’s musical capabilities that seem to have played into the film’s marketing as a way of suggesting triumph against the odds, the film is really more of a romance. Florence has health issues and as a result, Bayfield cares for her, but lives in an apartment elsewhere, with a girlfriend played by Rebecca Ferguson. It’s an understanding the married couple shares, but the film becomes a look at how Bayfield grows to truly appreciate the love he has for his wife.

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Much of the film centers on what Bayfield must do in order to keep Florence’s singing abilities known to only so many. He does his best to screen ticket sales to a major performance by Florence on stage and bribe any reviewers that may be witness to her. The most notable event is featured in the film’s climax, which adapts the true story of the time Florence performed to a sold out audience at Carnegie Hall. How this turns out and even much of the story has been altered (because this is a movie and not a documentary) but it matters little. The film is effective at generating a feel-good vibe throughout.

The enjoyment comes from the three leads. Streep plays into the same sort of comic energy she had as Julia Child (another mid-August release that served as counter-programing to big summer movies). The character is warm, despite seeming somewhat aloof, but that image evolves. We may not get a great look at everything that makes Florence tick thanks to a somewhat limited screenplay by Nicholas Martin, but Streep does plenty to show us how much the character truly does appreciate music and the joys of life.

Helberg similarly plays up Cosme’s quirkiness. As a flamboyant pianist, we gather how initially put off he is to have to work with such a woman, oblivious to her capabilities. However, the film allows him to see through and find the warm-hearted person that many seem to appreciate. Grant is the one at his best, as we find the various layers of his character so interesting to see in action. He has a great respect for his wife, as he should, but watching a man find true emotion in the way Grant does over the course of this film leads to some very strong moments near the end.

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Set in 1944, the film gets its appropriate amount of credit for costumes and production design. As I generally believe, it is hard to find a period film that does a bad job depicting the period. Frears is a director I tend to enjoy for both being an actor’s director and one who makes good enough use of his settings without overdoing it. Here, enough is on display to get to the heart of the matter, with little else to distract.

Florence Foster Jenkins does fine work in letting us into the world of a singer who couldn’t be matched. The way the film allows us to laugh, yet hold us back from doing it too much at the title character’s expense is impressive. It’s not beyond a film like this to find a soul and allow the viewer to feel for it. Having a solid cast only helps these matters further. It may be a bit slight, but the film is still a winner, which truly means the show must go on.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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