Alright, did any of my other Millennial readers feel really old when it was discovered that Hugh Grant would be playing husband to Meryl Streep. Sitting through the close to thirty minutes of trailers leading into my Sunday morning screening of Florence Foster Jenkins, it hit home when one of the trailers, Bridget Jones’ Baby featured the other British dream boat (my homeboy) Colin Firth. While looking a tad gray around the temples, but still playing the gorgeous, distinguished romantic leads that he got his start playing in films like Bridget Jones’ Diary in the early part of the 2000’s. Mr. Grant, on the other hand, who I first discovered in Four Weddings and a Funeral (at an age entirely to young to be watching that film) has been evolving as an actor. This seems to have begun in last years The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and continues in the post-summer, period piece (and pseudo bio-pic) Florence Foster Jenkins.
Okay… onto the review…
This film checks all the right boxes.
Meryl Streep: Check
Period Piece Involving a Real Person: Check
Gorgeous Period Set Design: Check
Directed by Stephen Frears: Check
Any of these elements alone can usually be combined to score tremendous critical acclaim, as well as plenty of nominations come Oscar time. A number of these elements can usually guarantee a respectable Academy Awards showing.
This was where my head was walking into Florence Foster Jenkins, and perhaps the film is a victim of this reviewers own high expectations. While the film (as I stated above) checks all the right boxes, and is a perfectly respectable film in its own right, seems to fall flat from its true potential. Thus potentially explaining the post-summer release date, as opposed to a more typical November/December release. This movie has all the hallmarks of this usual brand of prestige picture.
Watching Florence Foster Jenkins, I found myself struggling to nail down what elements weren’t sitting right. Meryl Streep was her usual dominant self, Hugh Grant is always adorable, and it was a beautiful period film with no glaring technical errors.
The comparison I can most easily draw is my feelings after I saw The Theory of Everything. While everything technically and visually added up within the movie, there seemed to be no tension. To continue The Theory of Everything example… (Spoilers: If You Haven’t Seen It…) We all know that Stephen Hawking is going to survive, and most know that his marriage doesn’t.
The narrative of the film seems to be more about Florence as a character, and her relationship with husband St. Clair Bayfield, rather than developing any particular story. While the narrative builds towards the big Carnegie Hall concert, nothing ever seems truly in jeopardy. There is some brief tension drawn (between the filmmaker and the audience… Florence has no idea) involving questions of Bayfield’s relationship with another woman, as well as an ongoing thread involving Florence’s past (syphilis and an incident involving a knife, which is never truly explained). She’s always (at least superficially) happy, and floating on a cloud of her own pleasant dissillusion (likely explained by the syphillus). Florence’s husband is obviously completely and utterly devoted to her. While things are never going to be truly happy (once again…syphillus), they are as happy a couple as they’re going to be. For much of the narrative, he keeps her blissfully unaware of the terrible nature of her singing voice. Until a (very hastily constructed) conflict at the end of the films, things look like they’re going to turn out okay. Perhaps certain historical events don’t need to be turned into a movie.
I wanted to give a quick should out to Simon “Howard Walowitz” Helberg, who plays piantist Cosme McMoon. The actor (who’s usually stuck on The Big Bang Theory) puts in an intelligent and subdued performance as Jenkin’s timid pianist. I hope to see more of him outside of the long-running CBS comedy.
While I’d like to turn this into a bigger retrospective piece, I would like to give a round of applause to Hugh Grant as well. He puts in a great performance in the film, but looking overall at his career, it’s interesting (and a bit sad) to watch my once favorite romantic lead, choosing to evolve and expand his career outside of the territory we’re used to seeing him. However, in doing so, he’s avoiding being turned into a sad shell of his former self, still trying to play romantic leads to twenty year old women while he is cusping middle-aged. More power to you, Mr. Grant.
So, the final verdict is… there are better period pieces out there right now. Check out Indignation, danggit. Florence Foster Jenkins checks all the right boxes, but can’t seem to step into the great territory it should occupy. It’s the worst kind of prestige picture… a lazy prestige picture.
My Verdict: ⭐️⭐️