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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Helberg’

Having already polished off Mrs Pankhurst, Maggie Thatcher and the hotel-owner from Mamma Mia!, Meryl Streep moves on to a more significant figure in recent history in Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins (she is, naturally, playing the title role). To be honest, this is a movie which has fallen victim to an odd curse – a curse which only seems to affect movies in pairs…

Florence_Foster_Jenkins_film

Every now and then some form of folie a deux grips film-makers and they end up making multiple movies on the same subject, seemingly completely by chance. (Well, the zeitgeist may have something to do with it, I suppose.) So you sometimes end up in a situation like the one where Dante’s Peak and Volcano both come out in the same year, or Deep Impact and Armageddon, or even two versions of the Robin Hood story (I’m thinking of the Kevin Costner and Patrick Bergin movies, both of which appeared in 1991). In a similar, but still rather baffling manner, someone somewhere seems to have decreed that 2016 will be the year of movies about Florence Foster Jenkins, of all people.

Do I really have to go through the explanation of who this woman was again? If I seem tetchy it’s because I’ve already done it, not that long ago (or so it feels anyway), because the other Florence Foster Jenkins movie only came out a couple of months back: Marguerite, a French movie presenting a heavily fictionalised version of the story. Frears’ film sticks closer to fact, in theory at least.

Oh well. The movie opens in New York City, 1944, and initially appears to be about the complicated personal circumstances of actor and general bon viveur St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) – Bayfield works with, and is apparently devoted to, his wife (Streep), but at the end of every evening he goes off to his own flat where he lives with another woman (Rebecca Ferguson). But then, after Florence decides she feels strong enough to resume her own singing career, it looks for a while as if the film is actually going to be about her accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg): McMoon is startled to discover that his employer, despite her love of music, has a singing voice that primarily resembles somebody stabbing a cat to death, and yet she is indulged and kept ignorant of this by everyone around her.

It’s only after quite a long while that the film actually starts being about Florence in earnest: following one especially successful soiree, she feels moved to record herself singing, and inevitably a copy of this escapes into the wild, causing something of a sensation amongst the public and deep alarm to Bayfield and McMoon. A concert in front of an unsympathetic audience at Carnegie Hall looms…

You can imagine the key personnel of this film emerging, grim-faced, from a screening of Marguerite, and blessing the English-speaking public for their entrenched antipathy towards subtitled films, because otherwise their film would have been in very serious trouble: not only are they based on the life of the same person, but they feature some of the same musical numbers, and even some virtually identical costuming choices. This wouldn’t matter so much were it not for the fact that Marguerite does it all¬†much¬†better – it’s a subtler, wittier film, broader in its scope and with a more interesting cast of characters. I know it’s bad form to claim to be writing about Florence Foster Jenkins but actually go on about the merits of Marguerite instead, but there you go, in this case it’s unavoidable.

The curious thing is that there was potential here for a somewhat more distinctive take on the story – there certainly seem to have been enough idiosyncrasies to Florence Foster Jenkins’ actual life, most of which the French film ended up ignoring. (I’m assuming here that Frears and his team aren’t just making stuff up, by the way.) And yet the film shies away from being wholly a bio-pic of the lady. The basic creative process appears to have been: ‘woman can’t sing well – must be a comedy’.

Well, there are comedies and comedies, and this one is definitely towards the broader end of the scale. The main problem here is that, especially when singing, Streep is trying too hard. ‘Look at how badly I’m singing, isn’t it hilarious,’ is the message she is sending off – she is proclaiming badness rather than unconsciously confessing to it, and this is rather less effective. To be fair, her whole performance is a bit TV sitcom.

Much better is Hugh Grant, in a role which plays to his strengths. I’ve always thought Grant was a very underrated performer, his indifference towards acting too often being mistaken for an indifferent talent. He carries the film here, giving a witty and subtle and actually rather complex and layered performance. Hugh Grant doesn’t make a lot of films, and seeing him here really makes you wish this wasn’t the case.

In the end Florence Foster Jenkins is a bit of a mixed bag – it looks fine (through some cinematic sorcery they have managed to make Liverpool indistinguishable from 1940s New York), the performances aren’t actually bad (some, as noted, are actually very good), and there are some quite amusing moments, especially if you haven’t seen that other film I keep banging on about. But the title character never really comes to life or moves you, which is surely what the film-makers were intending. If you have a choice of films about bad singing to watch, then I’m afraid I can only recommend this one to people with a pathological hatred of the French: to paraphrase Carly Simon, somebody else has done it much better.

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