Not all Biopics are about outright success or fame, some of the best stories aren’t glittered with glory and instead highlight struggles against the norm. “Florence Foster Jenkins is one of those examples, landing on home release recently for me to take a look at.
The story has the main character of Florence (Meryl Streep) as an aged, but still very popular figure within the music and culture scene of New York in the middle of the Second World War. With a large inheritance fund to fuel her passion for music, she wishes to make a return as an Opera performer. The only problem is that (unknown by her), she cannot sing a single note in tune. Her partner Clair Beyfield (Hugh Grant) hires a young Pianist named Cosme (Simon Helberg) to help in her training, where he must maintain the image set for Florence that she is a wonderful singer, because for her, music is everything that her life is for.
One newspaper headline in the film asks if she is “The worst singer in the world”, and I think I’ll tackle that first. You see, it is one thing to have a singer who knows they’re bad, but keeps trudging along in the hopes that they will improve. But for Florence, her own exterior motivations are to fuel how much she absolutely adores Opera. She may not be able to hit any notes at all, but she knows every piece of the music she does, and knows exactly how it should sound. That takes far more talent to achieve than the former example, which is why even though she’s not good, she’s by no means the worst.
The Biopic is designed more as a light comedy rather than to be a fully accurate thought piece, it needs to be when you’re taking on such a strange topic. The audience is in on the joke, with the main character being oblivious to its existence. But rather than just play it all for shits and giggles, we get to see her utter passion and joy in the Arts. But more importantly, that she really is a sweet old dear. Meryl Streep is what translates this across so well, she makes you cheer and root for the character rather than spend all the time laughing and mocking the absurdity of it all. Her simple kindness is what shines through the most.
Hugh Grant plays a deeper character who has a little more going on with them. He truly loves Florence, and uses his well set position to keep her performances displayed to the right audiences. (of course, this is to protect her first and foremost) It is a difficult and demanding task, but one he takes on with relish. Their new Pianist has aspirations of making a real name of himself, and so is quite shocked at the idea of keeping the secret. Hugh grant puts in one of the better performances we have seen from him of late, his character has plenty of flaws, but wrapped within such a caring and charismatic personality. Simon Helberg is a new name to be, but he carries this incredibly nervous and quiet character really well. I was very surprised at how much I liked his acting.
Now, you may be wondering why on Earth we should be caring about some rich people’s antics during World War II, it wasn’t exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to see as the basis for a story. But two aspects cleared that for me – the illness that Florence has lived with her whole life and which drives her to never give up no matter the odds. And the emphasis on the importance of keeping the Arts alive during a time where its existence was being threatened. You come to see that this wasn’t just a bunch of millionaires throwing their money about, they were fighting to keep the life and soul of New York, they life they loved, alive.
This also helps to balance out the comedy with something that has emotional impact. Florence’s past is terribly sad, one that could so easily have been too much for her to even cope with. But with St. Clair she manages to fight on. It provides moments of sadness that aren’t completely telegraphed, which is a real problem with Biopics of late.
If I had complaints to make, it would be that the story can get a bit too syrupy at times for my liking, quite a bit of the comedy is made for an audience more…. in their golden years, so to speak. There was only a few places that gave me a giggle, and the places where her bad singing is supposed to be funny lose their effect. I just didn’t think she was as bad as they were making her out to be. But hey, I can’t sing for shit either, so maybe that was why I was so kind on her.
It’s kind of funny that I was expecting this to be another one of those afternoon tea themed comedies with little to show or say. And it ended up really charming me, purely because we have someone who despite their poor musical talents, still loves what they do. In the age of X Factor where fame takes first place over talent, that gave me a nice, warm feeling. Who cares if you’re not great at sports, or music, or even writing casual movie reviews. (moment of internal gazing an oneself) If you find joy in it, keep at it. A nice message to have, don’t you think?
Thanks for reading!