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Movie Review: Florence Foster Jenkins, or the Beauty of Hopelessness

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

Director: Stephen Frears

Written by: Nicholas Martin

Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Helberg

Biography/Comedy/Drama

Running time: 111 min

As a musician myself, Florence Foster Jenkins intrigued me ever since I found out there would be a film made about her story. Admittedly, I had not heard much about her before, but I was excited to get an insight into why—money aside—this woman was “successful”, and was able to go down in history nevertheless. Florence is a dramedy that is almost warming to watch. Meryl Streep plays a New York heiress whose dream is to become an opera singer after her career as a pianist is thwarted by syphilis affecting her nervous system. The catch? She absolutely cannot sing. The film is therefore a story of deception, much like The Emperor’s New Clothes, where friends and acquaintances praise this apparently tone-deaf lady. Once again, Meryl Streep steals the show with some sublime acting. Acting, and singing, are hard enough as it is, but doing them wrong on purpose and having it turn out completely natural is astounding of Streep, who trained as a classical opera singer in her early years. What is even more astonishing is that, as spectators, we are charmed and encouraged to grow fond of this quirky woman as the film goes on. 

Streep’s co-stars are also worthy of praise; particularly Hugh Grant, who we are used to seeing in a string of romantic comedies over the years. But Florence is not a typical romantic comedy; some would argue it is not a comedy at all in its deceitfulness. Grant plays St Clair Bayfield, Florence’s husband, a Shakespearean actor who did not quite gain the fame and recognition he initially expected. Director Stephen Frears initially dwells on St Clair having a mistress and his own separate apartment, but we learn soon afterwards that he is utterly devoted to Florence—this is his true calling in life. It is somewhat refreshing to see a younger man pining over an older woman in a multimillion-dollar production. Another brilliant portrayal is that of Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon, an eccentric pianist who is hired as Florence’s accompanist when she decides to turn her attention to operatic singing. While at the beginning he cannot quite believe that nobody has the courage to tell Mrs Jenkins that she cannot sing, Cosmé grows more and more fond of her as the film goes on. Helberg gives this character the perfect amount of awkwardness, with a stiff demeanour as he shuffles from place to place, almost floating.

The film is enjoyable even for viewers without much interest in classical music. The issues dealt with in the film make it accessible for all sorts of viewers, although I did note I was the youngest spectator in the room. Against the lovely backdrop of early 20th century New York, the film explores all sorts of relationships: romantic, work-related, deceitful; even acknowledging polyamorous relationships. At times, nevertheless, it is rather sentimental and somewhat slow-paced. Overall enjoyable and entertaining, this film is certainly something different. It is even being touted for Oscar nominations, and rightly so!

3.5/5

Esther is majoring in Media and Communications. She likes reading, vegan food, and spending way too much time on social media.
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