Movie Review: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
Imagine if after the boy shouted “The emperor has no clothes!” he’d been smacked by his mom and booed by the crowd, and the naked emperor was allowed to continue his promenade to cheers, safely within the delusion that he was wearing resplendent clothes.
That’s the obvious metaphor for “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Here’s the less-obvious one.
There’s a 1989 Jackie Chan movie called “Miracles—Mr. Canton and Lady Rose,” in which several friendly gangsters spend most of the movie in an elaborate scheme to pass off a poor flower lady as a rich Cantonese woman for the benefit of her daughter's rich, prospective in-laws. In the end her true identity is nearly revealed, and in a Hollywood picture it would have been revealed, and revealed to be meaningless, because aren’t we all the same, blah blah. That’s our kind of requisite happy ending. Not in China. There, the flower lady's disguise remained intact. The in-laws never know.
I.e., in the east: FACE > TRUTH. In the west, TRUTH > FACE. Within the requisite lies of cinema, that is.
I mention all this because for a moment in “Florence Foster Jenkins” I wondered if we weren’t becoming a little eastern in our sensibilities.
The three secrets of St. Clair Bayfield
Meryl Streep plays the title character, a real-life society matron and patron of the arts, circa 1944, who believes she has a splendid voice. She doesn’t. She has a horrible voice, a comically awful voice.
She also has a younger husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), with secrets. Three to be precise:
- He has his own village apartment, paid for by the Mrs., which he shares with his younger girlfriend Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson) and her artsy friends. So a cad, right? Well....
- He’s spent the last 25 years keeping from Florence the knowledge that she can’t sing. As the movie progresses he pulls more and more people into this illusion to maintain it.
- The third secret is the one the movie keeps from us: he truly loves Florence.
Some portion of the movie is about maintaining the first secret. At one point, for example, Florence arrives in the morning to see party detritus on the floor—just missing the naked girl in the bed and the near-naked one in the bathroom.
But the movie is mostly about maintaining the second illusion, particularly as Florence, buoyed by applause and (paid-for) good reviews, takes her talents into 1) the recording studio; and 2) Carnegie Hall.
You’d think such a role would be perfect for Grant’s overly polite, befuddled comic sensibilities, but he’s not the one in the movie who makes us laugh; he’s actually the one who makes us cry. That death bed scene in the end? The depths of his affection for her? If Hugh Grant gets an Oscar nomination, it’ll be because of that scene. His eyes—cut more and more like Jack Kennedy’s as he ages—revealed worlds: the lies he keeps telling her (she can sing); the truth he can’t hide (he loves her).
No, it’s Meryl, blissfully unaware and marvelously off-key, who makes us laugh. But I would add that even greater laughs are provided by Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”), who plays Cosmé McMoon, her soft-spoken accompanist, and who acts as our eyes and (mostly) ears throughout the movie. He first hears her voice when we first hear it, and some of his subtle reaction shots and line readings are close to comic perfection. With a glance, the kid upstages Streep.
The killing review
“Florence” is a movie about the worst kind of privilege—the illusions that the rich construct for themselves—so thumbs up to director Stephen Frears (“Philomena,” “The Queen,” “High Fidelity,” “Dangerous Liaisons”) and screenwriter Nicholas Martin (British TV), and, of course, the cast, for making us care. Occasionally my attention flagged, but then the movie would suck me back in—as when Florence, lonely with St. Clair on a “golfing excursion,” visits Cosmé in his small walk-up and does the dishes while he plays one of his own compositions. This inspires her to come up with lyrics on the spot, mumbled meaninglessly off-key, to his polite pain.
We also wonder how they’re going to make Carnegie Hall work. It’s one thing to fill a salon with the deaf and the bribed; how do you maintain the illusion when the place is filled with half-drunk soldiers who wolf-whistle Agnes, a brassy blonde trophy wife (Nina Arianda)? You don’t. The illusion crumbles. For a minute. Then the blonde stands up, tells the boys to show some respect, and everyone joins the fantasy. FACE > TRUTH.
The only one not joining the fantasy is Earl Wilson (Christian McKay of “Me and Orson Welles”), columnist for the Post, who can’t be bought. Florence eventually sees his scathing review, collapses, and, already sick (50 years of syphilis), lingers near death. Truth wins out, and it kills. A review kills. Man, those were the days.
Except truth doesn’t quite win out. Streep’s performance is both broadly comic and emotionally subtle, and in her eyes you see glimpses of the truth she knows is out there: that St. Clair cheats on her; that she can’t sing; that everyone is indulging her. But on her deathbed she again succumbs to the illusion; and her soul rises to the glorious aria she sees herself—that she remembers herself—singing.
Wonder how the movie will play in China?