Florence Foster Jenkins: Failure to Success
By Kaely Monahan
Films like Florence Foster Jenkins are true delights that remind us of the good things in life. In this biopic, Meryl Streep stars as Florence, the 1940s aristocrat and singer extraordinaire who takes New York City by storm. But like her contemporaries, she does not have the voice of an angel. Rather she is horrible--arrhythmic and flat--and with a voice like nails on a chalkboard.
At her side is her doting husband St. Claire, performed by the perpetually sad-eyed Hugh Grant. Their marriage is something rarely seen in film. It is in no way sexual. Rather, theirs is a love that transcends into the chivalrous almost medieval love between a knight and a lady. However, that does not stop St. Claire from having a secret girlfriend on the side, and his own apartment separate from Florence.
Nonetheless, he loves Florence. He doesn't even hesitate to aid her in her quest to start singing again. And with her fortune, it's not difficult to find a respected teacher and hire a pianist. Indeed, Florence has a whole community that adores her--whether for her or her money is up for debate. She seemingly funds the entire New York music scene. Between playing the patron to maestros and throwing lavish dinners to raise money for the arts, Florence flutters like a fairy who sees only the good in the world.
And St. Claire ensures that her fantasy stays intact by shielding her for those who would mock her. Journalists are bought off and only those of the most elite music societies are allowed to attend her concerts. Anyone who is new to Florence's performances are quickly instructed on the proper etiquette--no laughing or jeering, and lots of applause.
Yet even those who would mock her cannot help but praise her. She puts her entire self into her performances--and you can't help but applaud that.
And Streep does much the same. Her performance is without reproach. She imbibes Florence with such sincerity and innocence while at the same time hitting all the comedic moments with a punch. And there are many in this film. It’s impossible to not laugh in awe of her musical talent—or rather lack of it. Streep proves yet again that she is the queen of Hollywood. There is nothing she can't do--no part out of her reach. She captures Florence's complexity, which at first seems hidden beneath a frivolous jejune view of life. Yet the film reveals Florence's tragic past as well.
At her side is Simon Helberg as Comsé McMoon, her private pianist. The Big Bang Theory star shows off his concert-pianist skills, which are genuine. His fingers have to fly in order to keep up with Streep. And many of the scenes where they are together were recorded live rather than redone later in a studio. That makes his performance all the more incredible, for he had to react to whatever Streep would do while staying in character.
And those moments are gold. Streep is giving her all as Florence while Helberg’s McMoon is trying is utmost best to not flounder against her terrible notes. Those scenes are some of the very best in the film.
It would be easy for anyone to wilt under the star power of Streep and Grant, but Helberg rises to the challenge and proves he can do more than just be a geeky engineering—and he’s quite a scene stealer.
We can sympathize with McMoon, who clearly had no idea what he was getting into and can’t understand why everyone praises Florence so highly when she is clearly terrible. And that’s the crux of the film. Why do people love her so much? Is it because she funds the music scene? Or they are bought off by St. Claire to be an adulating audience? Or is it because many of her audience members can't actually hear anything and only think she's talented? Or is something more?
That said, only those who love and support Florence (or are bought by St. Claire) are allowed to hear her sing—that is until she decides to rent out Carnegie Hall and sing for the troops.
Throughout the entire film, there is a moral dilemma. Where is the line between supporting someone and patronizing them? Yet, in the end, you can’t help but love Florence and want to see her succeed.
Her joy of music is something transcendent and rarely seen. The fact that she gives her all to it sets her apart. And while she will be remembered for singing poorly, at least she’ll be remembered for singing. And the real Florence said much the same.
- Kaely Monahan is a journalist, graduate of City University London and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. Follow her @PopcornFans and @KaelyMonahan.