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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Frears’

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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Well, look, there’s all sorts of ways I could launch into a review of Stephen Frears’ Philomena, but only one which I know will get every regular reader excited.

In other words – he’s back! I am, of course, referring to my trusty Comparison Wrangler, who in the past has shared with me his considered verdicts on Beasts of the South Wild (‘Waterworld meets City of God’), Silver Linings Playbook (‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest meets Dirty Dancing’), Hitchcock (‘The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns’), and Lincoln (‘Forrest Gump meets Dirty Harry’). Circumstances have meant that the Wrangler and I have not been able to go to the cinema together in a ridiculously long time, but finally the stars came right and off we went to see Philomena (Mrs Wrangler came along too).

To be honest, Philomena had not featured prominently on my list of films to see, even though it does feature Steve Coogan, whose praises I have been intermittently singing all this year, and Judi first-person-to-F-bomb-a-Bond-movie Dench, who’s one of those people who seems utterly incapable of giving a poor performance.

PHILOMENA

Based on a true story, in Frears’ movie Steve Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist-turned-government-spin-doctor-turned-unemployed-person (such has been the career trajectory of many in recent years, but at least he managed to dodge jail time), looking to restart his career in some fashion. A chance encounter at a party leads him to Philomena (Dench), a little old lady from Ireland who fifty years earlier was compelled to give up her firstborn son for adoption.

Philomena, naturally, has never stopped thinking about her child, but all her efforts to track him down have come to nothing. Though Martin is dismissive of this kind of narrative from a journalistic point of view, on the most basic level it at least offers him the possibility of selling a story, so he agrees to use his contacts to assist her with her enquiries.

And what follows is the sort of story you would mockingly dismiss if it were presented to you purely as a piece of fiction. I knew very little about Philomena prior to going to see it, and the various twists and jumps in the narrative consistently engaged and surprised me.

The main reason I was indifferent to actually seeing this film was that, essentially, I thought it was a movie about various institutionalised horrors perpetrated by the Catholic Church and parents cut off from their children by great distances and long periods of time. I’ve seen that film; I’ve seen that film a number of times, in fact (as The Magdalene Sisters and Oranges and Sunshine, to name but two), and I don’t particularly feel the need to go and see another version of it unless it brings something new and different to the table.

And Philomena does this, mainly because the horrible-Catholic-nun material is sparingly deployed (needless to say this also makes it more effective), and much of the film is instead played as an odd-couple comedy drama. Philomena is sweet, straightforward, uncultured, and decent; Martin is educated, refined, highly intelligent and deeply cynical. The film is fundamentally about how he gives her the answers she has been waiting most of her life for, and how she manages to instill in him a little more humanity and feeling.

The film is smart enough to anticipate the criticism that this type of narrative might not be  more than woman’s magazine sob-story fodder, and gives the film an unexpectedly sharp edge in places: Martin is initially only doing it for the cheque, privately very dismissive of Philomena, and indifferent as to whether the actual resolution to their search is a happy or sad one (both are equally good from a journalistic point of view). You know this won’t last, but it’s still a refreshing perspective to see on screen.

And of course it doesn’t hurt matters at all that the majority of the film is a two-hander played between performers both carved of solid Star. It isn’t even as if Coogan is there to deliver the smart, jaundiced comedy while Dench rolls out the tear-jerking stuff. Both of them get their moments both of comedy and real drama, and both are equally effective. It isn’t really a surprise to see a film in which Judi Dench gives a virtuoso display of acting – but it is, perhaps, where Steve Coogan is concerned. Nevertheless, he matches Dench here.

This is, I think, the fourth live-action movie starring Steve Coogan to be released this year (the third I’ve actually seen, after The Look of Love and Alan Partridge), which is an impressive work rate even before one considers the sheer range of material he appears in. Nevertheless, I think this may be a bit of a watershed moment for Coogan as a performer – it’s not a grotesque, not a comedy turn, he’s not playing an exaggeration of himself or delivering a sparkling cameo. This is a proper leading man performance from someone with serious chops as an actor, and as such this may just be his finest hour at the movies to date (the fact that he co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film himself are also not to be overlooked).

This is an impressive, well-made, frequently very funny and equally quite moving film, which nevertheless has respect for its audience and doesn’t lay the sentimentality on with a trowel. It’s powered by two extremely good performances from two of the UK’s finest actors, and it’s a bit of a treat. I wasn’t planning to see this film, but I’m very glad I did.

And at the end I looked at my trusty Comparison Wrangler, not even needing to ask the question.

‘Harold and Maude,’ quoth he, ‘meets Finding Nemo.’

He’s still got it.

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