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Florence Foster Jenkins (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins


Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions, Brid Brennan and John Kavanagh.

Screenplay by Nicholas Martin.

Directed by Stephen Frears.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures.  110 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Talent is such a fickle thing.  Knowledge, or interest, or even a lifelong passion for something does not make one proficient at it, much less gifted.

Florence Foster Jenkins is based on an (admittedly rather obscure) true story, and yet it somehow feels like a fable.  A woman wanted desperately, more than anything else, to be an opera singer.  She gets to the point that she devoted her entire life to music, philanthropy and the arts.

Only one problem.  She couldn’t sing.  She could not stay on tune, her tones were often flat, her high notes felt like screeches.  This was a woman who was supremely knowledgeable about opera singing.  She must have known that her voice did not sound like the others, right?

It’s like those people picked for the early weeks of the old series American Idol for mocking.  You wondered how they could possibly be ignorant to their severe lack of talent.

But perhaps they really were.  Perhaps they wanted so desperately to be good that they convinced themselves of their talent.  And perhaps the people around them didn’t want to hurt their feelings, so they let them believe.

It is true that Florence Foster Jenkins could not sing.  But she almost made up for talent through sheer willpower and determination.  She may not have had the skills to perform an aria, but she had the passion and ability to perform, a strength of will that made her mangled performances almost passable.  The audiences could feel how hard she was trying, so they tended to give her the benefit of the doubt.

You know what?  This kind of selfless mass empathy feels particularly charming and timeless in the era of Trump.  The people knew that she did not have the ability, but they still cheered her for having the bravery to try to live her dreams.

Nowadays, it’s not exactly unknown for technically bad singers to actually be popular – everything from acclaimed troubadours like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, to a long line of novelty singers including Mrs. Miller, Tiny Tim, Biz Markie, Barbara Mason and more.

The truth is, early in the last century, Jenkins was a musical prodigy, and it perhaps was only a very hard life which robbed her of her most desperately wanted dream, a life on the stage.

Jenkins got married at 18 and contracted syphilis from her first husband.  (That husband disappeared soon after, but Jenkins kept his last name.)  At the time she was told she would not live to 40, but through strength of will and love of music she held on well into her 70s.  Sadly, the syphilis robbed her of much of her musical career.  She had been a well-known concert pianist when she was only eight (she even played at the White House for President Rutherford B. Hayes), but the disease caused nerve damage in her hands that robbed her of her ability.  (Many people have speculated that the syphilis also was at least partially responsible for causing her vocal difficulties later in life.)

She met her second husband, St. Clair Bayfield, an actor of modest talent, and he quickly became her manager, best friend and confidante.  She also shared her wealth (and talents) to further his acting career.

Much like her musical career, Jenkins’ marriage seems odd and flawed on the surface, and yet the film shows that in some offbeat way it really worked.  It may not have been a traditional romantic coupling, but they obviously deeply loved each other and doted over each other.  St. Clair at first glance appears to be taking advantage of her wealth, but as the film continues you see the great lengths the man went to in order to keep his wife’s dream alive.  There was obviously some very real love between them, even if it did not necessarily fall into traditional romantic mores.

St. Clair tried his best to keep Jenkins’ musical performances intimate, with small crowds of friends and people who appreciated her work in the community.  However, towards the end of her life, Jenkins decided she wanted to live her dream – to perform at Carnegie Hall.  This happened soon after a privately recorded song she made for donors became a surprise smash hit, so Jenkins decided to do a charity performance for the troops.

Meryl Streep has a contagiously good time in playing Jenkins, enjoying the ability to sing so far off key.  The biggest surprise here is Hugh Grant, though, sometimes because of his ubiquity in romantic comedy we forget what a good serious actor he is, but he totally sells the role of St. Clair, a sweet, giving man and the ultimate doting husband.  Simon Helmond of Big Bang Theory also does a nice job, if a little more subdued, as Jenkins’ shy piano accompanist and eventually friend who is submersed into their offbeat little world.

It’s an offbeat, slightly strange little story, but it also makes for a surprisingly strong film about following your dreams.  As Jenkins herself said, which turned into one of the more touching lines that Streep delivers here: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

She got that right.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: August 5, 2016.

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