Film review: Florence Foster Jenkins
She descends upon stage in the likeness of an angel, lowered by the use of a harness whilst a group of men on the side of the stage struggle to lower her gracefully onto her mark. Perhaps a vision of impending doom or just quite literally ‘hanging out’ with her familiars at the Verdi Club, this ‘angel of inspiration’ is Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman dubbed ‘the worst singer of all time.’
Directed by Stephen Frears, Florence Foster Jenkins is the story of Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) a much loved New York heiress of the 1940s whose love of music compels her dream of becoming a singer despite her inability.
Florence’s entourage composed of husband/manager St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) misleadingly encourage her endeavours, succumbing to her ignorance of pure musical talent in exchange for her happiness. They surround her with carefully edited audiences who adore the heiress and Florence’s over the top performances are met with much delight.
After seeing Soprano Lily Pons perform at Carnegie Hall, Florence is inspired to take singing lessons and perform in front of thousands at the well known venue. Despite the standing ovation she receives, Florence’s voice is as flat as a pancake. It wails as if imitating a drowning cat crying for help ignorant to the truth that she is a horrible singer. Understandably, Florence’s performance is panned and a New York Post reporter labels it as, ‘a vain, gross display of egotism.’
As Florence, Streep is utterly charming to watch along with Grant whose portrayal of English gentleman St. Clair is thwart with possible signs of infidelity in his relationship with both wife Florence and girlfriend Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). It’s a strange concept to grasp in our society where monogamy is the norm. Ideas of faithfulness especially when set in the era of conservative 1940s America cause us to consider St. Clair as deceitful shrouding Florence from the truth and hurt it may bring.
Florence Foster Jenkins presents us with the idea that sometimes as a society we’re too nice to one another. We find the criticism of those close to us is too harsh to deal with and choose to hide behind obtrusive screens which illuminate our faces and walls of text sandwiched between prepackaged compliments to protect their feelings. We dance around the flaws of others in fear of hurting the inflated egos of those we know despite our own internal judgments comparing ourselves against them.
We all envision ourselves as somewhat talented, unaware that the lens of egotism has blinded us from seeing the truth. We’re all honestly pretty bad in this regard but there is a lesson to be had here. Despite her obvious lack of talent, Florence’s charm is not from her singing ability but her love of life, of music and the warmth she resonates whilst performing in front of her audiences. She is famously quoted on her deathbed as saying, ‘People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.’
In essence Florence Foster Jenkins is a film which makes you realise that it doesn’t matter if you are more or less talented then those around you. Comparison is an insignificant factor when you find delight in doing what you love.
Florence Foster Jenkins was indeed an ‘angel of inspiration’ bringing much joy to her audiences. An elderly woman’s remark on one of Florence’s performances, ‘I can’t hear very well but she was wonderful’ epitomises how people saw her and how she was adored.
Held by the support of those who love her, Florence makes her mark in the musical world charming not only those of her time but inspiring us as well.
Florence Foster Jenkins is in Australian cinemas from May 5. For other parts of the world, check local listings.
Review by Addy Fong.