Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

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There is never a shortage of biopics made, with multiple films about various historical figures, either incredibly famous or utterly obscure, coming out every year. Many of these films seem to star Meryl Streep. This year, we were given Florence Foster Jenkins, a bizarre subject for a film biopic, but one that was destined to be a lot more interesting than the bland and vanilla biopics churned out frequently, and if anything, it would give Streep the opportunity to have some fun, because as everyone knows, I am incredibly critical of the incredible amount of praise heaped on Streep, and I truly believe the best kind of Meryl Streep is the Meryl Streep that is having fun.

Florence Foster Jenkins is centered around the titular character, a socialite in New York City in the early twentieth century. She is a sweet lady who is liberal with her grandiose wealth, but wishes to be a famous singer – and she certainly did become someone that did draw crowds. The only problem is that Florence Foster Jenkins was perhaps the worst singer to ever live, but this doesn’t prevent her from pursuing her dream and singing anyway. She has money and she has passion, and she manages to buy her way into performing at the prestigious Carnegie Hall – and her performance is one that will go on to become the subject of legends, and one of the most infamous moments in opera history. All the while, her devoted husband St. Clair Bayfield and her desperate-for-fame pianist Cosmé McMoon are firmly by her side, never allowing themselves to admit to Florence that she is an absolutely horrendous singer.

I’ll cut to the chase – Meryl Streep may be the greatest living actress, but she has her fair share of failures, and when she is in a bad film, she can be utterly horrible. However, at this point in her career, she doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone, and can afford to have some fun and give some very silly and fluffy performances – and one such performance is the one she gives in Florence Foster Jenkins. This is a role that needs a talented actress, but also one that doesn’t take herself too seriously. In giving this performance, Streep is forced to come off as gleefully unaware of her own mediocrity and, quite frankly, appear like quite an idiot. This isn’t to say these things are true about Streep herself, but it did require a considerable amount of self-deprecation to achieve this kind of performance (it is always strange how actors are willing to physically make themselves hideous for a role, but are reluctant to play characters that appear stupid) – and Streep pulls it off. Florence Foster Jenkins may not be her best performance, but it is certainly one of her most endearing – she is utterly charming, incredibly sweet and absolutely wonderful in the role. She is constantly lovely throughout, and by the end of the film, you have formed such an emotional connection to the character, it is impossible to not be moved to tears by the incredibly poignant ending.

However, as good as Streep was, she wasn’t the best part of this film. Now, ladies and gentlemen, let me type a sentence I never thought I would: Hugh Grant was great in this film. I am not the biggest fan of Hugh Grant (thankfully I missed out on the 1990s, where he was put forward as this incredibly charming leading man). I am used to the smug, arrogant and vaguely nasty Grant presented to us in recent years. I don’t have anything against him, I just thought that the stuttering, arrogant “charmer” is just overdone in each of his performances. Thankfully, he finds some solace in Florence Foster Jenkins, where he plays the role of St. Clair Bayfield wonderfully – never overly loud, and frequently truly charming and interesting, he is simply wonderful in the role. He may be my favorite part of the entire film, which is quite a bizarre sentiment, because I never thought Hugh Grant was capable of this kind of performance. I also need to praise Simon Helberg. I am so glad he was able to get off the sinking ship that is The Big Bang Theory, if only for a brief moment, to explore some alternative career options. When he first appears on screen, he seems to be giving a truly terrible performance – but as his performance progresses, he gives a wonderfully strange and quirky performance that grew on me. It also doesn’t help that I watched this film a few days after the sad death of Gene Wilder, because I noticed a lot of similarities between Helberg’s performance here, and Wilder in films like The Producers and Bonnie & Clyde. As a whole, the lead trio of this film are all wonderful and make this film worthwhile.

Otherwise, Florence Foster Jenkins is not a truly memorable film – but it is a very sweet one. Stephen Frears is very capable of making these kind of melodramatic films about interesting people, and he has shown his ability to do it with films like The Queen and Philomena. Perhaps this is not a challenge for Frears, but then again, we don’t particularly need every filmmaker to be original and inspired to be innovative. Florence Foster Jenkins is a very sweet film that might not make cinematic history, but it certainly managed to put me in a good enough mood and I enjoyed watching it. I do enjoy having my mind blown by a great and original film, but sometimes, a sweet and simple little film is more than enough – and that is why I really enjoyed Florence Foster Jenkins more than I thought I would.

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