Meryl Streep Unforgettable as ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

Aug. 12, 2016
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Florence Foster Jenkins was a society hostess in 1940s Manhattan, a remnant from an era when the Astors and the Vanderbilts rode in carriages along Park Avenue. She was a patron, make that a matron, of the arts—a heavily bejeweled presence in big funny hats who underwrote the city’s musical institutions. In the film version of the finale of her life, called Florence Foster Jenkins, Arturo Toscanini comes to call at her suite in an elegant hotel. The conductor bears the gift of his latest 78-rpm recording, but lingers on, hemming and hawing about a donation to support his next endeavor.

Florence Foster Jenkins is the year’s first serious Oscar contender, featuring an unforgettable performance by Meryl Streep in the title role and a superb supporting cast headed by Hugh Grant as her husband, the expatriate English thespian St. Clair Bayfield; and Simon Helberg as Cosme McMoon, the aspiring concert pianist who became her accompanist in a supreme act of folly. Madame Florence (as everyone habitually calls her) has no discernable potential as an opera singer, but places herself on the way to a recital at Carnegie Hall. The cacophonous creak of her fluty voice is enough to send alley cats scurrying for cover.

Unlike the average delusional person, Madame Florence has the influence only money can purchase. The conductor of the Metropolitan Opera gives her singing lessons, keeping a straight face as she misses every note. But she also has the loving support of her husband, who endeavors to keep her from bad news, bribing music critics when possible and buying up an entire newsstand of negative notices when he encounters a writer too honest (or priggish?) to take his money.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a comedy that conceals a tragedy; Madame Florence’s heavily guarded secrets are gradually revealed, showing a woman of remarkable spirit in the face of the gravest circumstances. Director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Laisons, The Queen) recreates 1940s Manhattan and slowly builds the film’s pace, adding pathos and touching sentiment as the story rises to its denouement.

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