It’s that time of the year where Meryl Streep releases her annual Oscar-nominated performance. Now, this isn’t a statement to knock or throw shade at the nineteen time Academy Award nominee, as I actually enjoy almost every Streep film I see. She always brings her all to every role and earns every nomination she gets. Even if I personally thought her last winning performance for The Iron Lady was a good performance in an utterly terrible film, she was still completely deserving. Now, the last couple years saw her without a single role notable to the Academy. Into The Woods saw the butt-kissing love of the Golden Globes but really had zero hope of anything else; Suffragette was a blink and you miss it role; and Ricki and The Flash, well, that was just a paycheque fluff movie, right? Streep aligns herself this year with The Queen and Philomena director Stephen Frears for Florence Foster Jenkins, a true story that will surely get the golden standard of a Meryl nomination brewing again.
The production of Florence Foster Jenkins surely wasn’t just looking for a win for their main lady but looked to return others who had stumbled recently. Stephen Frears was definitely looking to get back in the best picture side of things, somewhere he was in 2013 with his Judy Dench film, Philomena. His last film was the entirely flawed biopic about Lance Armstrong, The Program, which had a really great performance from his lead, Ben Foster, but was haphazardly misguided. Beyond that, Frears may be looking for another director nod as well, his last being in 2006 for The Queen. His male lead, Hugh Grant, on the other hand, is just looking for a win, as his last successful film came over a decade ago and no matter how much we love him as an audience, and, face it, we do, he hasn’t been making the choices that we love. Except The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Shame on everyone for not giving that one some love. Moving on, I know everyone wants Florence Foster Jenkins to score with audiences everywhere.
Set in New York during the 1940s, the film opens on St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), the husband of music socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep), as the two do a sort of play to celebrate the music of Verdi. Highly respected by all the frequenters of the opera and a usual financier of these arts, her husband doesn’t seem to bat an eye when Florence announces her intention to taking singing opera seriously and strive towards a show in front of an audience. Intent on making his wife happy as always, Bayfield holds an audition for the perfect piano accompaniment, searching for the best fit for his wife’s style. They settle on Cosme McMoon (The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg), a meek and soft-spoken little man, who leaps at the opportunity and money offered from Bayfield, intent to get to work the next day.
Starting his work with Florence the following morning, one thing becomes painfully obvious, Florence Foster Jenkins is a horrible singer. Horrible singer may be an understatement, as she is not just terribly flat but can hit ear piercing decibels that may register as dog whistles. As McMoon tries not to react to Florence’s shrill operatic style, he notices Bayfield nodding in encouragement and her vocal coach praising every moment. Feeling like he’s in a crazy funhouse of opposites, the praise brings McMoon into focus more as Florence decides to make a recording of their music together and even has grandiose plans of playing Carnegie Hall. The question is, what happens when Florence Foster Jenkins finds out the honest truth about her singing?
I was very happy to find that Stephen Frears, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant made an absolute charmer of a movie. Yes, it’s incredibly fluffy and light with times of emotional manipulation but what we get in the end is another great character performance from Meryl Streep in a beautiful sweeping look at high opera society in the 1940s era Big Apple. In a fantastic team up, she plays very well off of Hugh Grant, who is so likeable in his caring husband ways that I really felt like he was missing from the cinematic landscape before this one. With such driven performances, it could have been possible that Helberg, predominantly a television sitcom actor, might get lost in the shuffle but he’s just as much a piece of the well-laid sensibilities of this film as anyone else.
Frears attention to detail in Florence Foster Jenkins is a testament to how well he takes on all of his biopics, production wise. Florence’s apartment is beautifully impeccable with, surely, many little time period Easter eggs strewn throughout and little pieces of her life on display. Frears brings his The Program director of photography, Danny Cohen, back for this dip into the past, leaning a bit on the work he had previously done for filmmaker Tom Hooper in The Danish Girl and The King’s Speech. The shots outside of Florence’s home into the busy streets of New York transport you right into the time seamlessly and never shake you from the story for a second. This is usually something that falls flat in many films but looked to be a sticking point for Frears and Cohen.
Florence Foster Jenkins the movie is much like the lady herself, a real crowd pleaser. The target market is definitely baby boomers and older, and I think this will more than satisfy that crowd but is it enough to be forefront in the minds on Oscar voter’s come awards season? With the tone of the film being very fun and comedy fueled, it could be tougher for this film when it starts to butt heads with the more serious dramatic movies. Meryl Streep always feels like the shoe in but given her absence in the last couple of years, have we moved past the era of almost a nomination a year? I’d say you shouldn’t count Meryl out by any means as, apparently, she heads towards retirement but Florence Foster Jenkins may be a film that falls a little too short. Still a decent enough movie and I give it a three and a half out of five.