Four stars. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for fleeting suggestive content
By Derrick Bang
It may be Meryl Streep’s movie, but Simon Helberg very nearly steals the show.
Streep delivers another bravura star turn as Florence Foster Jenkins, a truly American original who dominated a slice of New York’s aristocratic music scene from the early 1920s until just before the end of World War II. Had she been content to remain a mere patron of the arts, it’s entirely possible that performance venues — even to this day — would bear her name.
But Jenkins also fancied herself an operatic diva, despite having virtually no sense of rhythm or timing, and possessing a truly lamentable voice that was incapable of pitch or sustained notes. None of this bothered her — indeed, all indications suggest that she wasn’t aware (or simply refused to acknowledge) her deficiencies — and she took pains to ensure that her intimate recitals were attended solely by friends and hand-picked sycophants.
Occasional published “reviews,” appearing solely in small newspapers or obscure music publications, were no more than obsequious puff pieces (which, in at least some cases, she reportedly wrote herself).
But the charade — if that’s even the proper term — came to an abrupt end on Oct. 25, 1944, when Jenkins gave her one and only public performance at no less than Carnegie Hall. That event, along with a handful of 78-RPM records she made for the Melotone label, forever defined Jenkins’ life and career.
While the results could be labeled as tragic or just desserts for unmitigated hubris, director Stephen Frears and scripter Nicholas Martin obviously didn’t see it that way. Their buoyant study of Jenkins is giddy, hilarious and unexpectedly poignant: a deferential depiction of a free spirit who marched to the beat of her own drummer (if seldom in time).
Streep’s portrayal emphasizes vulnerability and fragility to a degree that seems at odds with established fact, but it does serve to make Jenkins more sympathetic. Mostly, though, Streep revels in this flamboyant, outsized role to a degree than Jenkins herself would have recognized and encouraged. Streep is loud, brash, stubbornly ambitious and utterly clueless ... the latter Jenkins’ defining characteristic.
On the one hand, there’s much to admire about a person who steadfastly follows her own muse, however ill-advisedly. At the same time, we can’t help feeling sorry for somebody who is fooled and deceived by far too many people willing to maintain a pretense, in return for social prestige or bald financial gain. Martin clearly recognizes the tragedy of wealth, in terms of the inability to trust the motives of so-called friends.
Streep’s performance leaves no doubt that Jenkins couldn’t even imagine that this might be the case: She believes the (apparent) sincerity of her admirers. She flutters, flusters and fidgets to a degree that seems intentionally affected, and yet it clearly isn’t; Jenkins operates within her own social reality. In modern parlance, she might be on the spectrum: an intriguing possibility that makes her even more sympathetic.
Streep is ably supported on two fronts. Hugh Grant, who has remained under the radar for the past several years, delivers a richly nuanced performance as aristocratic English actor St. Clair Bayfield. Despite having once contemplated his own stage career, Bayfield sublimated such dreams to become Jenkins’ amanuensis in all things: supporting her singing “career,” carefully vetting the patrons who attend her concerts, steadfastly intercepting any actual music critics, and much more.
On top of which — and most crucially — Bayfield genuinely adores Jenkins, and the devotion is mutual; she couldn’t survive without him. Martin perhaps shades the truth a bit here, in order to expand Bayfield’s role and influence; history suggests that Jenkins wasn’t that dependent upon him. But the artistic license allows Grant to wield the emotional complexity at which he excels, notably with the twitchy half-grins that — coupled with his sharp gazes — suggest so much.
Bayfield’s life is extremely harried, given the constant need to chaperone and subtly maneuver Jenkins’ impulsive desires, along with the challenge of pouring (often financial) oil on troubled waters. Then, too, his bond with Jenkins — while loving — is complicated; although outwardly appearing as husband and wife, the relationship has remained unconsummated.
Indeed, after tucking Jenkins into bed each night, Bayfield retires to his own apartment, and his own mistress (Rebecca Ferguson, who makes the most of her small role as the put-upon Kathleen).
Good as Grant is, though, he’s outshone by Helberg: a hilarious force of nature as Jenkins’ loyal piano accompanist, the improbably named Cosmé McMoon. Frears and Martin take the largest liberty with this character, who in real life met Jenkins in the late 1920s. But this film confines itself to 1944, and thus adopts the fiction that this is when McMoon enters Jenkins’ surreal world, as an eager young pianist who hopes one day to carve out his own career.
McMoon therefore assumes that he has been hired to work with an actual diva, a notion dispelled during a rehearsal session that anticipates one of Jenkins’ private tableaux vivants. Frears gets such a deliciously subtle range of emotions from Helberg (who has perfected his understated double-takes during his decade of work on television’s The Big Bang Theory).
Watching McMoon struggle to contain his astonishment, restrain the impulse to burst into laughter, avoid reacting in a manner that might jeopardize this cushy new job, and bravely plug away on the piano — all at once — is the height of sly comic genius. And it never stops; McMoon stutters and stammers his way past the obvious questions, and the mounting fear that he’s ruining his career potential by association.
At the same time, there’s no question that McMoon soon grows fond of Jenkins, even protective of her: a gradual shift that Helberg sells quite persuasively.
We expect great work from Streep; seeing similarly deft and cunning timing from Helberg is an unexpected bonus.
Tony Award-winning Nina Arianda also is memorable as Agnes, the floozy ex-stripper trophy wife of one of Jenkins’ longtime patrons. With a sassy cackle reminiscent of a young Annie Potts, Arianda is a stitch when Agnes reacts to her first Jenkins performance: the sort of spontaneous, mirthful disbelief that releases all of our pent-up aghast-ness.
And yet Frears and Martin are careful not to make Agnes a one-note burlesque; at a key moment, she proves unexpectedly sensitive and loyal.
Kudos also go to Martin, who ingeniously constructs a narrative which — despite being confined to less than a calendar year — eventually grants us all the essential details of Jenkins’ life and career. While it’s true that Frears and Streep work hard to ensure that Jenkins not be depicted as a pathetic freak, the entire performance starts with the written word, and the care with which Martin has constructed these three key characters.
It’s impressive work for a first-time screenwriter, who until now has confined his efforts to British TV mystery shows such as Dalziel and Pascoe and Midsomer Murders.
The technical credits are splendid, production designer Alan MacDonald conveying a strong sense of how New York aristocrats tried to pretend that wartime deprivation simply didn’t exist. Costume designer Consolata Boyle has a great time with Jenkins’ grandiose stage outfits, particularly the gaudy number worn as we first meet her, posing in a tableau inspired by Howard Chandler Christy’s painting, “Stephen Foster and the Angel of Inspiration.”
(Imagining this tableau, and Jenkins’ part in it, can’t possibly do justice to the actual moment; it must be seen to be disbelieved.)
Although much of the film’s soundtrack is dominated by Streep’s screeching efforts at lieder and operatic arias, Alexandre Desplat’s gentle orchestral underscore enhances dramatic moments, particularly during the increasingly poignant third act.
As the story concludes — rather too melodramatically, but I guess Jenkins would have understood — we can’t help admiring her: no small feat, and a testament to Frears, Martin and the entire cast. This light-hearted drama makes an excellent companion piece to Donald Collup’s 2007 documentary, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own, which is easily accessible via the Internet ... and, I’m certain, will become a must-see for viewers moved by this new film.