British-born director Stephen Frears is a man of many genres. From the infamous Dangerous Liaisons (1988) to the bio-drama The Queen (2006), Frears has a talent for mixing and matching his film credits. Florence Foster Jenkins is no exception. Named after the protagonist of the film and the real woman it’s based on, Florence Foster Jenkins is a mixture of laughter, tears and moral indignation. Based in the midst of World War Two in New York, Meryl Streep plays Florence Foster Jenkins, an heiress who dreamed of being an opera singer. Only problem is, no one has told her she doesn’t quite have the voice for it. Her husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), and close friends go to great lengths to ensure no one tells her the sad truth, and it is both humorous and heartbreaking to watch.
Despite the big-time names attached to the project, it’s the supporting cast that truly shine in this movie, especially in the case of Simon Helberg, who plays Cosme McMoon. From The Big Bang Theory fame, Helberg’s portrayal of the quirky pianist who is hired to play for Jenkins is heart-warming and provides the most laughs. Despite not being the title character, it is McMoon whom the audience find themselves following, as they learn more about the world of upscale New York and the lengths that Jenkins’ husband will go to in order to hoodwink his wife in both her lack of talent and his own adulterous ways. Nina Arianda is also a standout in the role of Agnes Stark, the Marylin Monroe-esque wife of one of Jenkins’ friends, who is too brash to be fully embraced by high-society but with enough heart to endear her to the audience.
There is a magic to this film that it is quite hard to explain. Perhaps it is the glistening background of 1940’s New York, or the quaint humour that is entangled with every little quirk each character depicts. It is one of those films that, despite being a true story, can be watched without previous knowledge due to the outlandish nature of the plot itself. The closing credits reveal the authenticity of the tale and is a nice touch, allowing viewers to see the real-life versions of the characters they had grown attached to during the 120-minute running time.
One thing the film somewhat lacks amongst its various comedic and heart-warming shenanigans is full closure to all of the storylines. Bayfield’s infidelity isn’t fully addressed and he seemingly gets away with a lot of the more questionable things he does. He is one of those characters that audiences will both love and love to hate. He makes mistakes, but his constant support of his wife and Cosme becomes one of the film’s driving forces. Cosme coming to terms with the fact he’ll become associated with Florence’s lack of talent is also a storyline that though well tied up, could have been more focused upon, especially seeing as Streep and Helberg have amazing organic chemistry and bounce off each other well.
There are a lot of emotional moments in the film, but it’s the subtle comedy that really sets the film apart. From little character ticks to double-laden statements, writer Nicholas Martin certainly has a talent for the hybrid nature of the film. The performances by Streep and Helberg showcase the power of good writing and delivery, the results of a screenplay displaying a good balance of humour and morality tale. Audiences are taken on an emotional roller-coaster ride as the story unfolds, characters are developed and we become attached to each individual story. Florence Foster Jenkins leaves audiences to ponder whether it’s best to be honest and hurt those you care about or to lie to make them happy. It’s a somewhat deep message to take, but the moral is wrapped up with a nice little bow and will struggle to leave a dry eye in the house. It isn’t about being the best; it’s about enjoying the journey along the way.
Overall, this is a lovely film, perfect for an audience that wants to connect with more than just the protagonist. Whilst it may struggle to fully deliver on all the minor storylines it attempts to depict, Florence Foster Jenkins is yet another shining star on Meryl Streep’s long and frankly outstanding acting career.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10