There was a time not long ago when it seemed like every second person in history was deemed worthy of a biopic. Therefore while Google-ing the celebutante Florence Foster Jenkins before watching Stephen Frers new film, I had a gut feeling that this was a biographical film that did not need to be made, let along one that Meryl Streep would regard starring in. Yet what followed was a funny, earnest and sometimes heartbreaking film about the dedication of the human soul and the struggles of the 1940s.
Streep takes on the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, a rich dame and foster of the arts scene in New York City. As a fine appreciator of music and stage, Florence Foster Jenkins gives her go as singing and aims high, though her voice is easily comparable to a dying turtle. Her gusto and dedication takes her to Carnegie Hall, all the while supported by her carefully planning partner St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and embarrassed accompanist Cosme McMoon.
The best thing about the film is how bright and bubbly the story plays out, with the screenplay never delving into over seriousness nor preaching to audiences about any particular issues. It’s an audience picture first and foremost, and as such is incredibly sympathetic to the elderly socialite who assumed could command attention simply because she had over the years. At very few points are we exposed to her vanity and belief system that money buys talent, and therefore criticisms of class privilege and commercial arts are missed here.
Streep sings quite early on in the film, immediately taking away that factor of the comedy, but the film finds other innovative ways to conjure humour. Streep’s portrayal brings to mind her turn as Julia Child, as this New York icon is played over the top and without any restrictions. Grant too is in top form here, breezing easily through the role. But it is Simon Helberg that excels in the role as Cosme, showing his acting ability in a way that is never seen in The Big Bang Theory. His quirky humour, carefully calculated characterization and ability to make the audience empathetic towards Florence Foster Jenkins shines throughout and makes him an invaluable part of the cast.
While production design is quite heavy and at times the script is underdeveloped, the score is commended and the costume design for Florence Foster Jenkin’s costumes must be in line for an Academy Award later in the year. Indeed while Marguerite, also released earlier this year, mimics many parts of Florence Foster Jenkins life, this film’s simplicity and accessibility by average cinemagoers meant that audiences will give this under-marketed film the correct viewing it deserves. Frear’s commitment to the source material and attention to detail mean that the story comes to life in the best way possible, with Streep that extra oomph to take the film over the edge.
Published in The Australia Times, 1 June, 2016.