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Film review: Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in 'Florence Foster Jenkins'

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins is one of those films which is hard to classify as comedy or tragedy.

Jenkins was a New York City socialite who inherited quite a bit of money from her father, a very well-off attorney whose family owned land in Pennsylvania. Early on she exhibited talent as a pianist but her musical career was cut short after she contracted syphilis from her husband with whom she eloped with at a young age, but soon separated from.

In 1944, the year in which the movie is set (and in which she died), Jenkins had been a fixture on the New York social scene for many years. She was an active participant in numerous women’s clubs and as the film makes clear, she established the Verdi Club which promoted classically trained singers (particularly opera). Jenkins had a penchant for dressing up in ostentatious costumes and often had photographic tableaux created as part of her devotion to artistic expression. However, her main interest was operatic singing and she took lessons with numerous prominent operatic teachers until she started singing before private audiences, mostly consisting of various friends and acquaintances in high circles.

In the film, Jenkins hires a pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, of TV’s Big Bang Theory) to accompany her for rehearsals and private performances. In actuality, Jenkins had met McMoon much earlier and he wasn’t the only accompanist who played for her. McMoon also was a songwriter and Jenkins later recorded a couple of his songs.The film mainly focuses on Jenkins’ companion St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), an English actor she took under her wings who acted as her manager. Jenkins rented a small apartment for Bayfield in New York City where he carried on a discreet affair with a mistress Kathleen Weatherley (Rebecca Ferguson).

Both Bayfield and McMoon are protective of Jenkins, who is in reality a terrible singer with no sense of pitch. The story reaches its apotheosis after Jenkins records a few songs at a recording studio, develops a bit of a cult following and then decides to hold a concert at Carnegie Hall, buying up most of the tickets for a gaggle of soldiers on leave. Most of the audience can’t help but laugh at the deluded Jenkins but also end up applauding her for at least trying.

Bayfield goes to great lengths to buy up all the copies of the NY Post across the street from Jenkins’ apartment as Earl Wilson, the Post’s music critic, pans her as a fraud. Eventually, Jenkins gets hold of the review and collapses after reading it—soon afterward, she dies not before imagining herself as an angel in heaven singing like the great operatic singers of the day.The comedy of course revolves around Jenkins’ atrocious vocals coupled with her handlers’ ultimate unsuccessful attempts to keep her in the dark as to the true nature of her vocal abilities. If there’s any tragedy here, it’s the saga of a life based on a lack of self-knowledge, reinforced by enablers dependent on a deluded seeker’s financial support.

Meryl Streep is wonderful as Jenkins, reproducing her atrocious off-key shenanigans to a T. Hugh Grant adroitly conveys his devotion to his patron despite his tragic dependency, and Helberg displays impeccable comic timing as the hapless accompanist.

The well-respected director Stephen Frears once again has proffered up another biographical tome which is typical of the vast body of his work. I’m not sure if the subject matter is better treated as a documentary (see the informative “Florence Foster Jenkins: A World Of Her Own” on Youtube) than a full feature as is done here. Ultimately Florence Foster Jenkins the movie is a footnote in the history of music, but a well-crafted one at that.