Monday, February 20, 2017

Florence Foster Jenkins

I don't go to the movie theater very often, but when I had an afternoon off last summer, I took the chance to watch Florence Foster Jenkins. With it being up for a couple of Oscars this week, and with it now available on DVD, I'm comfortable doing a full-length post on it.

It's based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins (played by Merrill Streep), a musical prodigy who when she was about 9 or 10 years old performed a piano recital in the Rutherford Hayes-era White House. However, she contracted syphilis from her first husband when they got married, and that led to hand injuries that scuppered any piano career. She became a patron of the arts and fancied herself a singer.

Most of that, however, is backstory to where the movie begins, which is in 1944. Jenkins and her second, common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) run a private club that puts on elaborate performances called tableaux vivants that to me look like a high-class version of vaudeville, but that's beside the point. St. Clair also manages the occasion recital for Florence, which is by invitation only. The reason why these recitals are invitation-only is because Florence turns out to be the world's worst singer. (Whether she knew it and was in on the joke, or whether she was truly serious, is a question for some debate.)

St. Clair manages Florence's career, as well has her personal life, trying to shield Florence from any criticism, and dealing with Florence's advancing syphilis. Meanwhile, St. Clair has a woman on the side, since he and Florence have a tacit agreement that he can never have sex with her, what with that syphilis. How aware she was of any such relationship (represented here by Rebecca Ferguson as Kathleen) is probably a matter for debate too. And then there's getting a new accompanist for Florence. All the pianists are horrified by her singing and most of them don't play in her style, such as it is. The only one who can is Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), although he's quite frankly incredulous that Florence plans to sing.

While St. Clair goes off to Long Island to spend some quality time with Kathleen, Florence decides to surprise him. First, she makes some recordings, ostensibly for her patrons, although we know those recordings are going to make it out into the public. More worringly for St. Clair is that Florence, of her own accord, decides to rent out Carnegie Hall for a public concert! There's no possible way St. Clair can keep Florence from learning the truth about what everybody thinks of her singing now, and Cosme is worried that this will ruin his career.

Florence Foster Jenkins is ultimately at its heart not a biopic; it only covers two or three years of Jenkins' life and compresses them into a few months. It's more of a love story, with St. Clair having to face the question of how far he's going to go to make his wife happy. He doesn't ever want to hurt her with knowledge of his mistress Kathleen, and he doesn't want her to have to deal with the withering criticism of her singing that's sure to come. But at the same time, he doesn't want to steal her life's ambition, and it makes for an interesting conflict, open to both humor and drama. Having a story set in the 1940s also affords the opportunity for some nice set and costume design; the costumes received an Oscar nomination.

The movie's other nomination went to Meryl Streep (yet again) for Best Actress. Not a surprise, I suppose. But to be honest I found Hugh Grant to be the real revelation here. His St. Clair is no lightweight, but a fully-realized character full of the natural emotional conflicts that somebody would have in his situation. Grant effectively lets us see all of this. Simon Helberg also does surprisingly well as the pianist who is kind of confused by everything, but who ultimately doesn't want to hurt a kindly old lady like Florence either.

I can highly recommend Florence Foster Jenkins.

No comments: