The latest offering from Stephen Frears puts Hugh Grant back on the big screen, with Merylq Streetp leadding as Florence Foster Jenkins. The film’s tagline bills this as the inspirational story of the world’s worst singer, and we do get that; but we also get something much more interesting; a love story.
The love story is almost entirely lacking in conflict; and that’s what makes this quite a different beast to most historical biopics. For the unaware, or unable to infer from the trailers; this is the tale of Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite in New York in the 1940s, who runs a caberet club with her husband Sinclair Bayfield. When stage work starts to bore her, she decides to resume singing, and for her lessons and classes, the pair hire Cosme McBoon as their pianist. McBoon believes he is the only one who has noticed that Florence’s singing isn’t just bad, but barely hits a note. This is the 1940s, before you can just do a karaoke of Taylor Swift; Florence wants do opera or not waste her time. The whole thing plays out as funny because the humour comes from the fantastic playing off the situation from Grant, and Simon Helberg’s McBoon.
The real highlights are not the singing sequences, but the sequences of Bayfield and McBoon hiding the truth of her inability from her. Bayfield’s insistence that only ‘true music lovers’ should attend her private concerts and carefully selected access to news and reviews for Florence to see. Away from this whole scene, Bayfield has a seperate life from Florence. Is what he does with Florence his passion out of love for her, or his passion for the work of permitting her the dream to perform as she wishes?
As lavish as the film looks and as engaging and unique as the performances are, the drama never really grips. Revelations that are key to our investment in the characters and the relationships are held back for considerable portions of the film, and in being quite slow; despite the attempts to make the camerawork, editing and montages make the film feel fast, we don’t quite involved enough until too late.
I would hate to spoil the film’s plot, simply because I don’t know that I can reveal any more without revealing everything else. For its 110 minutes, its pacing is too fast on some of its plot strands and too slow on others. This is a shame because Stephen Frears made The Queen feel like no time had passed despite the careful and slow dialogue that chugged that film’s almost plotless story along.
My other problem with the film is that it doesn’t do enough to protect Florence from us. The fact that the film is funny is to its disadvantage. I felt very uncomfortable laughing out loud during the film. However, the film does literally invite you to laugh at Florence’s poor singing in the same way that Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor invites you to laugh at the bad singers. This is not the sole source of laughs, but by the being the central conceit of the film, and it being funny, it struggles to make Florence the protagonist.
This isn’t to say its not either Bayfield’s or MacBoon’s film, both of whom achieve by slowly revealing more of what their characters are over the film; but again, you’ve laughed at her bad singing by that time. The problem is that like the heckling and ridiculing audience members, we’re laughing at her, not with her; largely because she’s unaware.
Maybe that is the point. Maybe the point is that its okay to laugh at this because we’re invested in the efforts to protect her from the truth. Fantastic set design and lavish visuals with top performances are great, but are undermined by the barriers the film puts up to investing into them.