Just because a film is based on a true story, it doesn’t mean that an audience is necessarily still going to buy it. It’s a quandary that writer William Goldman discussed in his seminal book Adventures In The Screen Trade, and it’s one of two problems that hang over Stephen Frears’ latest feature, Florence Foster Jenkins.
Florence Foster Jenkins, here played by Meryl Streep, isn’t a name I was familiar with. But as the film puts across, she was a terrible singer, who was led to believe she was a great one. Specifically by her husband – St Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant – and in turn young musician Cosme McMoon, in the guise of Simon Helberg.
An heiress, we quickly learn that Jenkins is very rich, not in the best of health, but keen to keep singing. And then, as the film evolves, her husband arranges a concert for her, but carefully stage-manages the audience. You don’t have to look too far to see a modern day parallel or two in contemporary music, certainly. Stage management certainly isn’t a new thing, right down to ejecting the critic who might not follow the party line.
Thus, we’re soon introduced to Jenkins’ ear-cleansing singing, which Streep goes for with gusto. There’s something inevitably tittersome about watching someone belting out a song badly – heck, Cameron Diaz’s karaoke moment in the solid romcom My Best Friend’s Wedding is hard to beat – but as the scene played on, I couldn’t help but fear that the film was asking us to laugh at her, not with her.
And that soon, for me, became the second problem with the movie. The more it evolved, and as events played out, the more I felt there was a slightly mean streak underpinning it. For a film that appears pitched as a comedy drama, I left it feeling it had a slight tinge of the playground bully about it.
It’s not helped by Grant’s character. On the one hand, he’s the supportive husband, running around and pulling strings to protect his wife from the realities of her singing voice. He’s trying to maintain the facade, and keep her happy. Yet he himself is a facade: there’s an unpleasantness to his character, not helped by a liaison of sorts with Rebecca Ferguson’s Kathleen. The brilliant Ferguson is the current winner of the most thankless female role of the year award, too.
Grant’s character also, ultimately, felt a little hollow to me come the finale of the film. I didn’t buy him, and that’s where the problem of adapting a true story comes in. It’s utterly feasible that’s what put on screen is actually what happened, but in the context of a motion picture, it didn’t quite hang together at the point it’s supposed to join up. I get it: I appreciate it’s the old joke about Crimewatch not being as good a TV show as it used to be, but I do think that given the positioning of the film, the over the top nature of the source story, whilst the spark for the production, is also a problem with it.
Stephen Frears is a director whose work I like a lot (even the films that Rotten Tomatoes tells me I’m not allowed to like), and he stages his sequences exquisitely well. Furthermore, both Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg are excellent value here. But I couldn’t shake my feeling of discomfort. Thus, whilst moments are wonderfully staged, and the film captures a period feel with real skill, the comedy for me ultimately felt awkward, and that underpinned the drama.
Given the ecstatic poster quotes and star ratings I’ve seen elsewhere, it does seem right to note that, as always, alternative opinions are very much available on this one.
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