Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Aug 12, 2016 2:35 pm 
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SIMON HELBERG, MERYL STREEP, AND HUGH GRANT IN FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

Carnegie Hall finale of a deluded lady

Not every Stephen Frears film is a great one. But consider that between 1985 and 1990 he directed My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters. That's what I call a roll. Fans might differ on what to like best since. I'd have a lot of time for High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, and The Queen. This new one, Florence Foster Jenkins, is a flatfooted effort, as the title, which is just the name of the lady it's about, itself shows. And why should we be interested in Mrs. Jenkins? Simply because she was an actual rich lady, remembered because she sang very badly, in public. Played here by Meryl Streep, in another of her purely technical performances - including the terrible but plausible singing. It's less horrible than the singing of Catherine Frot, who won awards in Xavier Giannoli's Marguerite, a highly fictionalized version of the same story that came out in France last year. Marguirite is wearying; one hoped an American version, closer to real events, might evoke more sympathy for the deluded lady. In fact Frears' movie makes one long for Giannoli's, which, having free rein to invent, had a strange dreaminess, a sickly richness and complexity this lacks.

Florence Foster Jenkins belonged to a lot of social and musical clubs and liked to perform in tableaux (we see a couple). Most of all she was besotted by music. Both this film and the French one suggest that's what led to her unfortunate delusion that people would for some reason want to hear her sing coloratura arias. The Quixotic scheme is what finally, late in life, leads her out alone onto the stage of Carnegie Hall, which she has hired for the evening, giving away a thousand tickets to servicemen. And before that she made a record. She's believed to have been perhaps the worst singer ever to foist her voice on the public, or the most pleasurable to those who enjoy dreadful performances.

Still Mrs. Jenkins' literal story isn't enough in itself, and, knowing that, Frears and his writer, Nicholas Martin, spin it out with new factoids that shimmer and fade. We meet Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg of "Big Bang Theory"), a sweet, effeminate little accompanist hired by Mrs. Jenkins because he plays softly. Helberg has a mobile face, and watching it we feel young McMoon's horror when he hears his employer's voice, and we cringe with understanding when he lingers on because he's paid royally. McMoon becomes essential to Lady Florence's "success." He's a decent player who, with touching frailty, becomes a loyal friend.

Most loyal of all, and a larger character, is St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), m'lady's longtime common law husband, the illegitimate son of a baronet and a mediocre actor whose role of a lifetime has become the spousal one, though he has a very sexy mistress (Rebecca Ferguson), with whom he lives nearby. Part of this curious arrangement is explained when we learn that poor Florence contracted syphilis from a first husband to whom she was briefly married very early, fifty years ago. And so, with Bayfield, no sex. Anyway she's much older.

A lot of this movie is ritual. The aura it leaves behind, after the wrong notes have faded from our pained ears, is of Bayfield's impeccable English manners. How much of it is performance, how much sincere affection? Bayfield, as played by Hugh Grant, is such a smoothly polished stone that there's no complexity to penetrate. This differs from Georges, the husband of Marguerite in the French film, played by André Marcon, who constantly suffers over his wife's terrible singing - the terribleness of it; the many complaints of others he must ward off; and the discomfort of anticipating ongoing embarrassment as she keeps on performing. It's a strain to understand Georges but we ultimately sympathize with him and see what he's going through. Bayfield/Hugh Grant is just putting on a polished act. He's an actor: it's the greatest of his roles, which he has honed to perfection. Grant's is a technical performance too, like Streep's. He's like the finest of bespoke suits. He fits like a glove, but inside, it's empty.

A highpoint of the film, which has nothing to do with the tiresome story, is a gathering of hepcats at Bayfield's place after one of Florence's big, but private, performances, when McMoon gets drunk and has a gay moment (later, unseen, sailors beat him up on his way to Carnegie Hall). Briefly, Bayfield jitterbugs: there's kick in the old bird yet! The joint is jumping!

This is one of the moments when there's a strong feeling of the Wartime period. The way Florence and her old lady cronies dress, it could be 1910. The War era comes alive again strongly at Carnegie Hall, when a blond who has mocked Florence earlier sashays like a Forties pinup down the orchestra aisle and tells the servicemen to shut up and behave. Frears ends his movie with the fantasy that in heaven - she died in 1944, at 76, shortly after Carnegie Hall - dressed as an angel all in white, she will sing in key. Don't believe it.

Frears' movie shows us Tallulah Bankhead, Cole Porter, and other celebrities coming to Carnegie Hall, but doesn't convey how known and popular Florence had become as an entertainment. However bravely and adeptly Streep recreates bad singing, the result must lack the reported oddity and novelty of the actual person - how, as reported, listeners called her singing "intentionally ambiguous" and said that it "at its finest suggests the untrammeled swoop of some great bird." And there are many other odd details like the story of her sending expensive cigars in gratutude to a cab driver who had an accident while she was riding with him that made her, she thought, hit the fabled F above high C that had always eluded her. Some good stories don't make good movies.

Florence Foster Jenkins, 110 mins., debuted at Belfast April 2016; a couple other festivals. Its US theatrical release date is 12 August 2016.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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