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Florence Foster Jenkins Review: Finding Balance Between Comedy and Tragedy

By  · Published on August 12th, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins Finds Balance Between Comedy and Tragedy

Meryl Streep is pitch-perfect in the role of an infamously out-of-pitch amateur singer.

Watching Marguerite, Xavier Giannoli’s 2015 French feature, was like watching a poor, three-legged dog perform her tricks in front of a pitiless audience that cruelly mocked her while she went on, unaware of her missing limb. With the radiant, no-less-than-dedicated performance of Catherine Frot (in a mean film that opted-in to make her the butt of the joke), Marguerite was also (albeit, loosely) based on the infamously talentless WWII era opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins; a lover of music who performed among close-knit New York socialite circles and one day, still unaware of her lack of the slightest bit of talent, in Carnegie Hall.

To my extreme delight, what Marguerite miscalculated in balancing the absurdly comedic and heartrendingly tragic aspects of her tale, the Stephen Frears-directed Florence Foster Jenkins does right with. This is a charming, warm and increasingly heartbreaking film, helmed by a pitch-perfect Meryl Streep playing a character who obliviously sings out of pitch, and a dapper, gentlemanly Hugh Grant, in the role of her devoted husband and voluntary caretaker St Clair Bayfield; a mission-driven man who would resort to any measure to keep Florence blissfully ignorant. Think of him as a light and (a lot) more amiable version of Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard in his loyal and noble cause: to make his wife, who’s fought a deadly disease all her life and has been on a rapid decline in health recently, uncompromisingly happy. He is no saint –he often spends his nights with his lover Kathleen (charismatically played by Mission: Impossible –Rogue Nation’s Rebecca Ferguson who proves she belongs in 1940s clothing)– but he keeps at his genuine commitment all the same in a complicated relationship charged by mutual understanding.

Working from a smartly-nuanced, well-paced script penned by Nicholas Martin, Stephen Frears gradually contrasts Florence’s cringe-inducing out-of-tune notes against the perfect harmony shared by the couple, as he lovingly serves up scenes where St Clair puts daily affairs in order, keeps Florence’s audience and critics under control (he bribes as often as he must) and tucks her in bed and gently removes her wig from her bald head nightly. In fact, the first time we become aware of Florence’s baldness is the first moment our hearts collectively sink with the realization of the severity of her disease. And the film builds towards that decisive moment stupendously: what starts off as a sappy Allegro comedy about a possibly (very) entitled socialite and her money-driven husband gradually fades into a somber Adagio. From that point on, laughs –that were never necessarily at the expense of the title character to begin with– change in nature and come with a generous side of tears.

The introduction of the piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon (played by Simon Helberg with a disarming, cuddly awkwardness) into the story is another pivotal moment in the film that Martin’s script handles very well. In a way, we take a similar journey to his. The moral dilemma Frears smartly maintains throughout the film becomes weightier by each passing minute and humiliating performance: we, like Cosmé, desperately want Florence to stop embarrassing herself with her insufferable art, yet also, can’t help but intensely feel her on-stage joy. Cosmé realizes slowly that the ethically dubious those who keep their mouth shut might know something he is only just beginning to feel and experience. And so do we.

So how good is Meryl Streep? Outstanding would be the only word that would do justice to her deceptively happy-go-lucky performance. Singing perfectly out of tune is no easy business for a performer who’s long-proved her musical skills on both stage and screen. And neither is having a commanding control over a character in a film with frequent tonal swings. Meryl Streep makes it look so easy when she lets comedy take a backseat to tragedy in one scene, prioritizes laughs over tears in another and simultaneously reigns over both in many, as she trots in her delightfully tasteless outfits (craftily designed by Consolata Boyle who dresses the whole film artfully) and brings Florence’s extravagant mannerisms to life. And when Florence eventually faces the inevitable truth, Streep’s visible shift from bliss to sorrow is a separate class of acting in itself.

Florence Foster Jenkins celebrates its title character and deservedly earns your appreciation and sympathy for her along the way, one flawless false note at a time.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.