Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins
Cert: PG / 110 mins / Dir. Stephen Frears / Trailer

Er, audience demographic for a movie set in The Old Days™ which doesn't appeal to the kids that have just got out of school but is showing too early for the adults who are still in work? That'd be my afternoon-off spent in a darkened room surrounded people who don't think twice about having a conversation in the middle of a film, then. On the plus-side, the older generation don't play with their phones during a cinema-screening, although many of them are too busy repeatedly scrunching bags of sweets to have time for that*1. Anyway, Florence Foster Jenkins...*2

This film tells the story of philanthropist and performing-arts lover Florence (Meryl Streep) during the latter part of the second world war in New York, as she organises society dinners and concerts to boost morale. As you'll no doubt be already aware, Florence sings opera and classical music at these performances, despite not quite having the voice for it. Throughout all of this, she's supported and encouraged by her husband, St Clair (Hugh Grant), who walks the moral tightrope of keeping his wife's sole ambition alive, whilst making sure she's not exploited or ridiculed for her perceived lack of talent. And it's one particular 'breakout' performance staged for returning troops in Carnegie Hall that the story hinges on, as the carefully managed audience of friends and sympathetic supporters is widened to include the public and critics alike.

It's important to point out that while the film's subject admittedly wasn't the best of singers, she's not as dreadful as the film's marketing department would have you believe. A keen musician from an early age, severe nerve-damage put an end to Florence's instrument-playing leaving vocal-recitals as her only creative outlet. She has the appreciation, range and technique for the music she sings, just not the control or self-awareness to realise that she's all over the shop.

The back-story of the nerve-damage and its effects on Florence's life and outlook which serves as the real heart of the film, making it a story rather than just a chain of events. It's frequently very funny, and as you'd expect we're never laughing at Florence, but we're not necessarily laughing with her, either. The humour arises more from the awkwardness of the situations created by Streep's caterwauling, but this frequently crosses over into uncomfortable territory, even before the narrative intends it to. The combination of the public and private sides of Florence's life gives the film a far sadder undercurrent than I expected, but director Stephen Frears has the good grace not to get too mawkish with it all.

That said, moments of heightened-comedy segue into full-on farce, and Frears seems intent on over-directing his cast wherever possible. Streep and Grant both manage to underplay their roles well thanks to their experience and status, but everyone else seems to be struggling to fit four facial expressions where only two are needed (poor Simon Helberg being the worst casualty of this as Cosme McMoon, the newly-hired concert-pianist who acts as the audience's introduction to Florence's world).

The end result is enjoyable and admirable in its intention, although the story and lead performances are stronger than the film as a whole. Meryl and Hugh are perfectly suited to their roles, but I think Florence Foster Jenkins needs a more delicate hand than Frears can bring to it...

Oh, and Mavis from out of Coronation Street's in it. Who saw that one coming?

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
The film's a little bit Suffragette, even though it doesn't intend to be..

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
Sunday afternoon DVD, to be fair..

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Just about, but it doesn't realise its full potential..

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Everyone's reliably solid, but it's probably just 'usual form' to be honest..

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Jorge Leon Martinez plays 'Airborne Sergeant' in this, and he also appeared in The Force Awakens as "Rebel Alliance". That's from the IMDB, of course, which is (usually) accurate enough for the purposes of this blog, but bear in mind that the Alliance no longer formally exists in TFA, having been outmoded by The Resistance, so god knows who he's actually playing. Anyway, he's in both so that counts as a direct link.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 No seriously, much rustling right throughout the entire film. And I know what you're thinking: Oh, that young whippersnapper's being very disrespectful about older cinema attendees! The youngsters are no better!. I assure you that my ire has nothing to do with an audience's age, and everything to do with their behaviour. And the more popular a film is, the more badly-behaved people will be in the room; that's just statistics. I genuinely love it when a cinema is busy. Just not when I'm there.

*2 In honour of a genuinely inspirational woman who caused many people to emit bad language, I'll be spearheading a movement to get FFJ adopted as a profanity-evading acronym, to be used in moments of frustration while in polite company. But I'd really like our senior-citizens on board, so we're a bit pushed for time in getting this started. Maybe the next time your regional news show is doing a piece on the 100th birthday of a local resident, he/she could let that one slip on-camera? Spread the word, anyway...

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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