Florence Foster Jenkins
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 8th May 2016
The ladies who cackled through this film from the front row will no doubt cry foul at me for being overly politically correct and completely humourless. But I’ll tell you who ought to be accused of lacking humanity and making a film with no moral compass, and that’s the director Stephen Frears.
Florence Foster Jenkins is the unbelievable true story of an American socialite in 1940s New York who loved nothing more than to perform private concerts as an amateur opera singer. Harbouring a life-long dream to sing at Carnegie Hall, the only stumbling block was that Florence, an enthusiastic and well-loved philanthropist of the musical arts, didn’t have a singing voice in her head.
Meryl Streep plays the titular songbird, which should see audiences flocking to the cinema, despite the threat of a prematurely-aged (or perhaps just desperately tired) Hugh Grant as her devoted yet deceitful husband. Viewers at whom this pseudo-biopic is pitched will doubtless have missed meeting young Simon Helberg in TV’s Big Bang Theory, so it’s ironic that he, as Florence’s horrified but loyal piano accompanist, is the best thing in an otherwise dire “comedy”.
But ultimately the film’s timbre and purpose rests with Frears. The British director has had a long and varied career, with pitch-perfect films such as High Fidelity and The Queen maintaining him in my esteem, even through the Tamara Drewes and Philomenas (which target audiences loved far more than I). I’m sure he thought the idea of dramatizing some crazy old broad’s fanciful passion, with Streep gargling her grace notes and overacting, guaranteed a sure-fire hit. What he clearly did not consider is how mean-spirited the sad tale actually is, and how his 21st Century adaptation inspires neither compassion nor redemption.
Today’s scourge of online bullying, enabled via the anonymity and lowered ethical standards humans activate when on the internet, has uncomfortable parallels with the war-era scenes where concert audiences laugh and jeer, and as Florence’s “music” is played at parties for a joke rather than classical edification.
The real choker is that throughout her life, Florence was oblivious both to her absence of talent and the universe’s contempt, because everyone fed off her wealth, whether under the guise of maintaining her “happy life” or simply for their own gain (some reviewers were paid off; the more ethically-driven critics were simply barred from attendance).
Rather than laughing at Florence’s flamboyant costumes and ear-bashing attempts to hit the high notes, Frears could have prompted us to feel sympathy for the well-meaning, emotionally bruised, real-life woman who has gone down in history as a laughing stock (her Wikipedia entry pulls no punches).
Instead, the film is impossible to watch without sitting in a pool of damp discomfort. Leave the lady with some dignity and give it a miss.