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