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  • Writer's pictureHalle Arbaugh


Updated: Feb 28, 2019

Photo: 20th Century Fox

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It is music that is the essential player in the Stephen Frears-directed biopic 'Florence Foster Jenkins,'  music in its varying degrees of brilliance and non-brilliance, in its fullest dimensions – live onstage in front of a New York audience – and in its flatter forms – craggling through a radio and turning around an early turntable. There are the musicians: the singer Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) and the piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg). There’s the film’s quiet score, provided by the go-to composer Alexandre Desplat, and there are the songwriters: Cole Porter (Mark Arnold) perched in a chair in the audience of one of the film’s two pivotal scenes, and Foster Jenkins’ grandfather, nodded to in the film’s opening scene.

Streep, whose portrayal of Jenkins expertly provokes comedic nuance and compassion, is almost overshadowed by Simon Helberg’s turn as the overwhelmed pianist McMoon and by Hugh Grant’s surprisingly complex portrayal of Jenkin’s doting husband St. Clair Bayfield. Those unfamiliar with Jenkins – she was a socialite and heiress who pioneered New York’s Verdi Club and recorded an operatic single “Like a Bird” – will find an early scene involving Jenkins vocalizing onscreen for the first time a true slash of comedic gold.

While seamlessly executed and acted from start to finish, the most successful element of 'Florence Foster Jenkins' is that it celebrates the non-talent of Jenkins and, less visibly, of those around her: McMoon, we eventually learn, never makes it farther as a pianist than his fifteen minutes at Carnegie Hall with Jenkins, Bayfield never steps outside the protective circle of financial stability that his wife has cast, and even his picture-perfect extra-marital affair ultimately fails.

Echoing this, perhaps ironically, is the film’s failure to truly soar into anything above a standard biopic, one which should nevertheless garner Oscar nominations for Grant and probably Streep. There was potential for Frears to take artistic risks, such as those Jenkins and those around her take in regards to her vocal inabilities, but instead the director of 'The Queen'(2006) allows the cast and the one comedic element – that Jenkins is a horrible singer – to carry the film.  It becomes a film that focuses on artistic risks and bold dreams, taking no artistic risks and presenting no bold dreams of its own.

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