Florence Foster Jenkins movie full length review - More-than-adequate biopic
The story of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), or rather the fact of her being a famously bad (famous and bad) singer, is well-enough known, so potential viewers of this 20
16 (mainly British, BBC-made) film from Stephen Frears that carries her name will presumably be intrigued primarily by the approach or angle taken to that amazing story, as well as by the chance to go beyond the above fact to learn far more about the background to what was a quite bizarre circumstance perhaps mainly "of its time".
From the latter point of view, the film is quite helpful, as we do indeed learn a bit about Florence's life (though flashbacks are happily resisted). All we see is just a short period at the end of that life, which - by the standards of the day - was of normal length and far above normal affluence. It was by no means obvious that this would be the case, given Florence's being infected with syphilis by her (first) husband on their wedding night.
The above is the foremost, though not the only, key detail or fact about herself that Florence reveals, in lines ably and movingly delivered by veteran character actress Meryl Streep. In Streep's hands, the portrayal (which at times recalls the actress's equally-affecting version of Margaret Thatcher) is affectionate and often touching, and this approach makes it clear from an early stage that this film is not simply there to allow us to laugh at a wealthy woman in late middle age making a huge fool of herself.
Indeed, we are quite a few minutes into the film before the fact of Florence's being tone-deaf is made clear, and this proves an effective strategy from the point of view of comic effect (inevitably, we do indeed laugh when it happens), but also from the above point of view.
Huge efforts to limit the degree to which Florence makes a fool of herself are a key feature in and of the film, and these centre around (though are not entirely confined to) the character of mediocre British actor in New York St Clair Bayfield (1875-1967). This leads us to some of the best work Hugh Grant has ever done, though he (happily) leaves us all a bit mystified as to just how much of a cad Bayfield is. He is leading a kind of not-very-concealed double life, in which Grant ably demonstrates the character's remarkable apparent ability to jump from being a devoted (???) and quite elderly "Victorian" (and non-sexual) companion to Florence to being a man about town from at least one generation later, with a pretty (fellow-British) girl younger than himself present in a second and entirely different (and regularly-consummated) relationship.
The third key character in what is an effective and surprisingly equilateral triangle is that of pianist Cosme McMoon (1901-1980), a man who was in fact Mexican, though is a little transformed from that here, in the extremely capable hands of Simon Helberg. It's a nice and very welcome step up from Howie Wolowitz in "Big Bang".
Other actors are primarily Brits playing the parts of Americans well enough for this not to be an issue.
This film depicting the mid-1940s resembles Woody Allen's very recent "Cafe Society" (set in the 1930s) in lauding to the skies the Art Deco style. Indeed, the areas away from Florence's Victorianism and the relative squalor of McMoon's apartment are replete with beautiful design and colour, and it is such an incredible, joyous treat to the eye that one neither questions whether 1944 was too late a date for some of that nor worries unduly if it is not just too splendid (not least given that Europe at this time is fighting for its very existence).
Given its great settings, good lines and extremely proficient acting, "Florence Foster Jenkins" successfully avoids the implausibility trap befalling so many biopics (whereby characters from history saying and doing the things they really did seem like implausible caricatures in implausible stories). Here there is little or none of that, and the achievement is all the more remarkable given the near-surreal nature of the real-life story.
And here of course is the key question signalled at the outset in this review. In real life, back at the time, just who was exploiting whom? Just who was deluded? Given the syphilis and her relative longevity, Florence may not have been quite "all there" in her mind, but she apparently was a music-lover, who helped music in New York along, and was a rather "good person" in general. She was wealthy, and so could have fallen prey to various meanies on the make.
But that still leaves at least two $64,000 questions. Did her audiences love to laugh at her, did they love her and laugh at her, did they want to laugh but not do so (out of love for her or even for self-interested reasons), or did they primarily just love her? In each case, the nature of her "performances" would need to be seen by history in a different light. Without seeing the results of interviews with hundreds or thousands of people who actually went to the concerts or bought the records, we shall not have a "scientific" answer to this question. What we do have here is an "artistic" angle taken by the film, and this is not a fully clear-cut one, even if it is sufficient to leave those departing the cinema with quite a rich mix of thoughts and emotions.
One guesses that that is as much as one can reasonably be achieved with this strangest of stories.