I saw "Florence Foster Jenkins" the other day. It's a remarkable movie about a remarkable, true-life character. I enjoyed it greatly, but ...
FFJ was an American semi-amateur singer who had pretensions to opera – except she couldn't sing for nuts. Her concerts, self-funded (she inherited a fortune), usually private invitation-only affairs, became famous for her awful singing. She made records, snippets of which you can listen to on places like YouTube (she is truly bad; I checked her out a few days ago), and even staged a self-funded, sell-out concert, complete with celebrities, at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1944 for the benefit of World War II servicemen. This was the highlight of her "career"; she died, aged 76, very shortly afterwards.
"FFJ", despite its American story, is actually a British film from BBC Films, directed by the well-known Stephen Frears. Shot entirely in the UK, mainly in Liverpool and London, the British moviemakers do a good job of re-creating 1940s-era New York, even using a 1950s-style colour tint to film the story.
Florence is played by Meryl Streep, who does her own singing; after "Mamma Mia!" and "Ricki and The Flash", we know Meryl is no slouch as a singer. Here she has the awesome task of replicating really bad singing. As usual, she does an utterly convincing job. As FFJ's husband (actually, in real life, her second husband) minor English actor St Clair Bayfield, is Hugh Grant. His trademark style of slightly daffy but kindly English buffoonery is just right for the role. Perhaps the standout performance, for me, is Simon Helberg, from TV's “The Big Bang Theory”. He plays Cosme McMoon, FFJ's rather amazed and bamboozled, but ultimately loyal, accompanist. In real life, he was her second; she fired her first – according to legend, for laughing at her, ahem, "talent". McMoon never makes that mistake, well, not overtly anyway.
The real-life FFJ story was not without its tragic elements. From her first husband, she caught syphilis and suffered with it all her life. Probably because of this, she and her second husband, St Clair, had a purely platonic relationship. He kept a mistress, but whether FFJ knew of this is debatable. In spite of this, he seems to have truly cared for, and been very affectionate towards FFJ. He certainly took a major role in managing her singing career. All this is shown in the movie. What the movie doesn't make entirely clear – probably because no one really knows – is whether FFJ was truly aware of how awful her singing was, or did she just regard the whole thing as a huge joke. In the film, though, St Clair is portrayed as assiduously preventing music reviewers from attending her concerts, or if they do, then preventing FFJ from reading their reviews in next morning's newspapers. So maybe FFJ really had no inkling.
It is the juxtaposition of the tragic and the comic that I found a little awkward. Is FFJ to be portrayed as a figure of fun, or as a tragic heroine giving her not-very-good all for her art? I thought the movie hewed between both approaches with some lack of conviction. For example, there is a scene where FFJ is knocking on her husband's bedroom door, while the latter is madly trying to shoo his girlfriend out of his bed, get dressed, and stall Florence. It's as funny as a circus, and could have been taken straight from one of those charming British "Ealing Studios" comedies of the 1950s.
Contrast this with the scene at the climactic Carnegie Hall concert where, sadly and sickeningly, some of the audience start booing Florence's un-melodious efforts (that bit's probably fictitious; Florence was much loved by her fans), before her supporters valiantly rally to save the evening. It's a dramatic scene and your heart bleeds for the poor woman. It's definitely not comedy. So, I felt the moviemakers didn't quite get right what flavour or emotional "feel" they wanted the movie to have.
Don't let that ambiguity worry you. This is a most enjoyable bio-pic about a real-life person who was as generous and warm-hearted, as she was a terrible singer. One thing the movie makes plain: FFJ loved music and musicians, and devoted a considerable portion of her private fortune to encouraging the musical life of New York City before and during World War II. Florence may have had no talent, but she had a huge heart.
Gilbert's star rating (out of five): * * * *