Movie Review: Florence Foster Jenkins
By Ben Gruchow
August 23, 2016

Well hello!

One looks at Florence Foster Jenkins with persistent curiosity: what do you suppose was actually going through her mind in the moments when she would give an earnest performance that would have her audience visibly agape at the spectacle unfolding in front of them? Jenkins was legendary for her singing talent, or lack thereof, to the point where her peers were reduced to dancing around actual quality when asked for their assessment; as her seasoned vocal coach puts it in the opening act of the new movie about the lady, “the word is authenticity.”

Authenticity, I suppose, is right. You can’t really accuse Jenkins of pretending to be someone or something she’s not; in her mind, she was exactly the sort of vocalist she wanted to be. And despite the technical shortcomings of her instrument, which were manifold, she conveys her lifelong love for the concept and theory of music in general and opera specifically - if not anything resembling a comprehension of how those concepts and theories work - in the recordings of her that survive.

Anyone going into Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins looking for an illustrative or entertaining trainwreck will be disappointed. The incarnation of Jenkins here may indeed convey non-functional singing capability by Meryl Streep, but I’d say it shortchanges the real woman’s personality. Rather than a woman in possession of her own convictions about her vocal ability, Streep’s Jenkins plays disingenuous; she is unaware until the very end that her audience has been laughing at her and not with her. This has the effect of sanding the woman down, and I would have liked to see a Jenkins portrayed with her defiance and persistence more intact.

Streep plays Jenkins mostly as a woman with a suspicion of awareness; she knows that she has an abiding passion for music and opera, originating from childhood and persisting past the trials of her young adulthood. She makes the decision to pursue singing after being moved to tears by a young woman’s vocal one evening, recruits a vocal coach and a pianist, and exerts her considerable influence in the arts community of New York City to realize that decision. She seems to know that something is not quite right with her progress, but is more than willing to be assured by Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) and especially her husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) that she is performing wonderfully.

This sets us up for two performance sequences in the film that build with the apprehension and dread more expected of a suspense thriller. There is the feeling as we ramp up for Jenkins’ first stage performance in years that we are about to witness a humiliation along the lines of Carrie at the prom, and this feeling is much amplified for the second sequence, set at Jenkins’ infamous Carnegie Hall performance. And it’s really a sign of how skillfully Frears, Streep, Grant, and Helberg have sold us on this incarnation of these people; one character ventures to another late in the film that he has grown to love Jenkins and consider her a friend, and we realize we do care about these people, and that they achieve the limited degree of success that they are aiming for.

This is due to the work by those three main actors, all of whom find the right note. That Streep towers above everyone else is almost a matter of principle; this character is tailor-made for the actress’s ability to communicate with little inflections and tics. Where her Jenkins perhaps compromises the real-life woman, she succeeds at the (arguably more important) portrayal of raw passion and investment in the form. “Music matters,” she says in her opening scene; she is addressing her constituents in the Verdi Club, the arts community she helped to build and sustain, but what she’s really doing is setting the baseline for how we respond to her words and actions, including the quirks we have yet to witness.

Much of our surrogacy to these words and actions comes via McMoon, a young man who’s plucked from a field of anonymous contenders and given the opportunity to play venues far above his station; he is played by Helberg as perpetually on the edge of nervous laughter, his slight disbelief at his fortune at odds with his dismay and worry of his reputation at that fortune playing out in front of such an infamous central figure. Early on, he confesses this dismay to Bayfield across a litany of technical assessments of Jenkins’ shortcomings. Grant plays Bayfield as a man slotted into the not-entirely-willing position of diplomat and politician; having realized some time ago his own acting ambitions would not come to pass, he is resigned to playing the role of gatekeeper and the (often sole source of) support to a woman that he cares deeply about.

None of this is mounted in much of any unique or revelatory way; the supporting characters in Florence Foster Jenkins favor explicit descriptions and depictions of their varying states of emotion, and this type of on-the-nose character development tends to become more severe the further down we travel in cast prominence. Rebecca Ferguson, so elusive and mysterious in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation last year, tries mightily to bring the same charisma to the role of Sinclair’s erstwhile girlfriend Kathleen, with whom Sinclair lives outside of Jenkins’ apartment. That she does not succeed, and that our memories and impressions of Kathleen’s motivation and mental space do not extend beyond her frustration at being hidden and unspoken-of, is less the problem of Ferguson and much more the simplicity of the character’s writing. Also glanced over are Allan Corduner as music critic John Totten; we understand enough about him to favor him over the movie’s other prominent critical figure, the Post’s Earl Wilson (Christian McKay) - but since that character exists primarily to give us an antagonist to kick the plot’s final developments into motion, it’s not much to say that he’s outdone in terms of layers.

I do wish that the movie gave us an incarnation of Jenkins that more closely matched the thornier, more complicated woman in real life, but this want is mostly alleviated by the reality of what Streep and Frears have managed to accomplish: here is a woman with no measurable talent of her own, without any real attempt made onscreen to cushion that lack of talent (a hallucinatory sequence toward the end, where we hear what we are meant to believe Foster Jenkins sounds like in her own head, serves mostly to amplify the difference for us between what she should sound like and what she actually does), does not force her to acknowledge that very real liability, and yet makes her a sympathetic figure without taking away her dignity or respectability. That’s an abstract thing to hang the overriding impression and endorsement of a movie on, maybe, but a wholly defensible one.