27 Jan - 2 Feb 2017 #843

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins is a film for a day when you feel like you just want to unwind, laugh, and pretend that the world isn’t full of awful people
Sophia Pande

The awards season is here and with it the Oscar nominations, the official harbinger of the films that are supposedly worth seeing. This year brings a refreshing list of films, nine in total (up to ten films can now be nominated in a system that bewilders everyone but industry insiders), that steer away from the usual Hollywood tropes, bringing diversity in both structure and performances, breaking out of the mostly white person dominated cinema that has caused the industry to receive so much flak in recent years.

Among the surprising but, in hindsight, understandable nominations is for Meryl Streep yet again, in a wonderfully nuanced, comic role in Florence Foster Jenkins, a film about the eponymous American socialite turned opera singer whose dubious talents nevertheless entertained a generation of soldiers and high society New Yorkers during the grimness of the tail end of the Second World War.

Directed by Stephen Frears, this warm-hearted film by the witty, loquacious, generous minded former actor is a completely feel good piece of cinema. It is made transcendently funny by the talents of Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant (as St. Clair Bayfield, Foster Jenkins’ second husband), and Simon Helberg (as Cosmé McMoon, the long suffering accompanying pianist to the protagonist’s ambitions) who excel in their respective roles as compassionate but clueless performer, doting but not foolish husband, and ambitious but gentle souled composer.

This true story is a strange one to choose to retell, considering how awfully it could have fallen flat (pardon the pun) without a performer who can navigate the subtle difference between pathos, bathos, and outright comedy, quite frankly a feat probably only really possible by the multi-talented Streep. The veteran actor has, in the last decade, truly blossomed with her comic talents with films like The Devil Wears Prada (2006), and Julie and Julia (2009), catching up with the likes of Diane Keaton who has always been the darling of the directors who like a sweet sarcastic zinger directed in just the right tone.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a film for a day when you feel like you can’t stand any more corrupt politicians, another critical voice (even your own), and just want to unwind, laugh, and pretend that the world isn’t full of awful people who lie, cheat, steal, harass women, and still walk around unscathed.

Pardoning my political rant, and coming back to the quality of the acting, the performances in this film are the heart of what makes it extraordinary. Streep is rightly recognised for bringing so much humanity to a story about a rich woman’s travails, and Hugh Grant finally returns to the warm hearted comic performances that once made him such a star. Just a warning though, when Streep launches into one of her performances be prepared for both disbelief, and pure hilarity.