FILM HOUSE: Streep hits the right note in biopic
Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in a scene from Florence Foster Jenkins. Grant was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding performance by a male actor in a supporting role for his role in the film. (Nick Wall/Paramount Pictures)
If you have ever stood beside someone who loves to sing but can’t carry a tune, you may have been stunned into silence, whatever the merits of your own vocal skills.
Perhaps that wayward singer had a condition known as amusia (musical deafness), an inability to recognize familiar songs and musical notation.
British director Stephen Frears’ bio-pic of Florence Foster Jenkins, an American socialite and amateur soprano of the 1920s to the 1940s, follows a pattern found in his earlier films, My Beautiful Launderette (1985), High Fidelity (2000), The Queen (2006) and Philomena (2013) where uncommon characters drive their own paths.
Based on true events in 1944, Jenkins (Meryl Streep), described as “the world’s worst opera singer,” is introduced in a vaudeville number as an angelic muse to inspire a comedic “Stephen Foster.”
Although Jenkins indulged in kitsch, Frears’ portrayal draws us as viewers to the woman behind the mask of lace and jewels in a time of social pretension, giddy popular entertainment influenced by the daring jazz-age culture of the 1920s, and mass culture tastes.
Streep was born to play Jenkins, humanizing the woman and her eccentric life amid a New York society that made a celebrity of Cole Porter, a popular tunesmith of sophisticated songs enshrined in the American songbook.
At the very time bobby-soxers made an idol of Sinatra, Jenkins’ audiences were both naively supportive and cruel.
Caustic newspaper reviewers trashed her Carnegie Hall concert, where faithful piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg, a gifted pianist and physical comic) corrects many a key and note as she performs.
Jenkins presents an unflappable public persona near the end of her life. Privately cocooned in a lavish apartment decorated in floral wallpaper and antiques, she suffers the effects of a secret illness.
Her longtime companion, Sir Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant in a charming performance as nuanced as Streep’s) serves her domestic and emotional needs in this love story of companionship and unusual commitment.
Nightly, Sir Clair faithfully tucks “Bunny” into bed before returning to his own digs and girlfriend. A bon vivant, he manages Jenkins’ career, never exploiting her for money, unlike her wily vocal coach and Carnegie Hall’s impresario.
Jenkins and her young piano accompanist also share an unusual bond. Although dumb-founded by her terrible singing, Cosmé stays true to Jenkins to her final performance.
In a touching scene, Jenkins visits him in his bleak walk-up and washes the dishes piled in the sink. Together they tinker at playing a work by Chopin. (Jenkins had been a promising concert pianist before an injury crippled one hand.)
Frears’ film delves into what it means to be a music lover.
From Jenkins’ perspective, she is a passionate music lover despite her terrible singing, which she famously acknowledges: “People can say I couldn’t sing, but none can say I didn’t sing.”
The film reveals the social construction and pretension of audiences claiming to be music lovers.
Opera superstar Enrico Caruso was said to be a fan. An opera impresario remarked, “Jenkins was exquisitely bad, so bad that it added up to quite a good evening of theatre,” a coyly condescending remark.
When Jenkins dedicates her Carnegie Hall concert to soldiers on leave, they boo, cheer and mock her as a novel wartime distraction.
Filmed in Britain, BBC Films had the foresight to produce Frears’ film about an eccentric performer, releasing it in the same year (2016) as Damien Chazelle’s La La Land revived the musical genre as a romantic fantasy the New York Times dubbed “the festival darling” headed for the Oscars.
The Film House
at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre
250 St. Paul St., St. Catharines 905-688-0722
Listings for Jan. 13 to 19
Oasis: Supersonic will be shown Saturday at 9:30 p.m.
Florence Foster Jenkins: Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m., Monday at 8 p.m. and Thursday at 7 p.m.
Things to Come: Friday at 9:30 p.m., Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m. and Thursday at 9:30 p.m.
Night at the Museum: Saturday at 1 p.m.
Jaws: Sunday at 7 p.m.
For tickets and more information, visit FirstOntarioPAC.ca.
Members $7, general admission $9.