by Ken Bakely
Pauline Kael once said that the first prerogative of any artist is to make a fool of themselves. There is a fair degree of truth to this – anyone creating something must prepare to be derided, as not everyone will appreciate what you do. But that question of what is right or wrong becomes muddled when one comes across art that is indeed appreciated, but not in the way the artist intended. Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins tells the story of one such phenomenon. It’s important, in cases like these, to focus on the subject and highlight the inherent flaws without mocking it. Frears, and screenwriter Nicholas Martin, are aware of the potential pitfalls which would come with a misguided tone, and depict the eccentric titular character whilst making observations on the act of performing, and how it is a work of passion in and of itself, regardless of its perceived quality.
The film takes place in 1944, a pivotal year in the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep). Florence is a wealthy socialite in New York City, a well-connected benefactor in the theatrical and musical circles. She is married to stage actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). After hearing a particularly noteworthy opera singer, Florence decides that she wants to start up her long-dormant musical career, and revive her dreams of becoming a great soprano. Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), a young, graceful pianist, is hired to accompany her. He soon discovers a fact unmentioned by Bayfield, or anyone else for that matter – Florence simply cannot sing, and she is seemingly oblivious to that fact. Audience members for her early performances are secretly screened, and attendance is restricted to those who will not laugh or scoff.
For a while, this arrangement seems to be going quite well, until Florence’s career suddenly takes off. Still unaware of the reason why the public is captivated by her, she books a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall. Her husband is in a panic – he cannot control who purchases a ticket, and cannot rely on three thousand strangers to temper their reactions. Cosmé also fears that his own career is at stake if he is seen onstage during this anticipated flop. As the date of the concert draws near, something, anything, will have to be done, to keep Florence from discovering the reality of her fame.
Carnegie Hall was indeed the host location of a sold-out performance by Florence Foster Jenkins. It took place in October 1944, and was attended by numerous celebrities, at least one of whom ended up prematurely leaving the theater in hysterics. Cole Porter supposedly banged his cane onto his injured foot to keep from guffawing. The press covered the event extensively, and roundly trashed it. This is a chapter of cultural history so astonishing that Frears and Martin tone down some of the more ridiculous details in order to make the film appear more believable to viewers unfamiliar with it. In the end, this also serves the secondary purpose of making sure that Florence Foster Jenkins is not a movie which mocks or scolds its main character, but rather presents her as someone who was unabashedly confident, pursuing her dream with fervor.
Meryl Streep has a delicate balancing act to pull off in this role, in conveying the comedic nature of her character’s singing yet making sure to present her as a real person. Of course, Streep is very apt at handling this. The most succinct aspect of her performance is embodying unadulterated passion. Even as she squawks out wrong note after wrong note, you never doubt for a second that every last ounce of effort and dedication went into the results, both in terms of the actress’ work and her character’s work. Late in the 110 minute film, after the infamous Carnegie Hall gig, Florence says “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing”. It’s this spirit, a subconscious praise of those who do, and express themselves with gusto, which carries things through. Florence Foster Jenkins occupies this positive, celebratory mood, and as a result it is a light and mostly enjoyable production.
Yet there are a number of unanswered questions, including the ethics of using endless pools of money to substantiate someone’s own delusional self-assessment, which cannot be explored lest it disrupt the tonic-like mood of the rest of the movie. However, while Frears doesn’t take any particular creative risks, the territory he does occupy is admittedly familiar, is more than serviceable. There’s not much more going on beyond a skin-deep look at the life at the center of its story, but it’s successful in that limited scope. For those looking for a diversion from the late summer’s last gasp of underwhelming blockbusters and underwhelming scripts, Florence Foster Jenkins is perfectly amicable, providing a couple of hours of airy entertainment, featuring a strong cast recreating a fascinating tale.