by © Jane Freebury
It’s fine to belt out a song in the shower when you can’t hold a tune, the acoustics are good and no one is listening. But who among us wants to inflict this private pleasure on the rest of the world?
The extraordinary career of Florence Foster Jenkins during the 1930s-1940s in America begs a question or three. Few of which are answered in this pleasant comedy about a silly woman with more money than talent who insisted on appearing on stage in elaborate costumes to sing arias for a round of applause.
Apparently Jenkins got more than that, because sophisticated New Yorkers at her by-invitation-only soirees and music society events clapped hard to disguise the sniggers and the guffaws. She was a standing joke for years before the disastrous Carnegie Hall concert in 1944 and the press exposure that ended her career and, in short order, her life. Why so? We touch on this fleetingly in this new Stephen Frears film – was it the syphilis her husband gave when young?– but it remains pretty much unexamined.
Not one to criticise, British director Stephen Frears brings his light touch to bear on her story. He says Jenkins was preposterous, that he was nonetheless touched by her and it shows, but the best will in the world has bought mixed results, and for this viewer the conclusion that the film hasn’t really got to grips with its subject.
Even the immense talent of Meryl Streep, the antithesis of the woman she was cast to play, can’t compensate for the fact that the script is incurious about what really drove Jenkins, the reputed ‘I can do it. I’ll show them’ mentality, and why she was indulged for so long. Shades of the 21st century comedy of cringe?
Patron of the arts and still an aspiring soprano in her 70s, Florence Foster Jenkins may have been tone deaf and deaf to criticism too, but the problem was really her associates, her common-law husband (Hugh Grant), and all the folk who depended on her for their livelihood in the arts. She was a victim of her own patronage because no one dared to confront her with the truth. She was, like, too big to fail.
We know Streep can do anything, however I think she has done better. Her portrayal of Jenkins as a girlish innocent, manipulated by her fond but faithless husband, and by others who benefitted from her largesse, is sympathetic but not compelling. Did she need to be quite such a ditz? The steel that Jenkins apparently had in pursuing her career regardless is nowhere to be seen, nor does the Nicholas Martin script explore what it was about New York society at the time that allowed such nonsense to prevail.
In the Orson Welles’ classic of 1941, Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane bought an opera house so that Susan, his wife of meagre talent, could take the stage as an opera singer. She was miserable. Florence needed no such encouragement, and was thrilled with it all. I’m still not sure quite what to make of it.
It’s in character for Frears to tackle stories of significance and lend his generous perspective as in, say, My Beautiful Laundrette, Philomena or The Queen. It’s what we like about him. Florence Foster Jenkins undoubtedly had a fascinating backstory, however in neither this film nor the current French film Marguerite, also based on her life, do we ever quite get to the bottom of it.