Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep in a performance that while not necessarily Oscar worthy is certainly charming) was a talented young concert pianist who dreamed of playing at Carnegie Hall. Unfortunately an injury to her hands killed that dream, so Florence decided to go to Carnegie Hall as a singer. There was, however, one problem: Florence couldn’t sing. She was not only bad she was unbelievably, almost hysterically terrible, a fact her nearest and dearest were determined to shield her from.
Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) directs this quaint, bittersweet, little bio which serves as a fable as well. We live in a culture that constantly tells us to follow our hearts and pursue our dreams no matter what. But what if like kindly, sweet, generous, dedicated, but tone deaf Florence, your striving to do something you just can’t do? Scenes of Florence singing aren’t just hard on the ears, they take Cringe Comedy to all new levels. And isn’t indulging her denial just setting her up for a greater fall, as Florence, convinced of her greatness, books a night in Carnegie Hall?
Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant
These are the questions that come to haunt Florence’s chief enablers; her adoring husband, failed actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), and her accompanist, Cosmo McMoon (Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory almost unrecognizable here and shockingly good in his first major big screen debut). While Cosmo fears his involvement with Florence dooms his chances of ever being taken seriously as a musician, St. Clair has a host of other complications. Florence and he adore each other, but having contracted syphilis from her first husband, their marriage must remain celibate and indeed St. Clair lives in a separate home with his beautiful young mistress, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson of The Girl on the Train).
As Florence’s health declines, St. Clair feels obligated to make her final days a happy dream. Hugh Grant reportedly came out of retirement just to work with Meryl Streep and it was well worth it. The man may have more grey hair and wrinkles than he did when he first charmed his way into American hearts as a gorgeous British leading man in Four Weddings and a Funeral, but he’s lost none of his charm, his comedic timing and, if anything, his skills at drama have only gotten better with time. It’s his best performance in years. Florence Foster Jenkins is not just the tale of a woman who couldn’t sing, but a love story for grown-ups.
Who hasn’t dreamed about standing on a concert stage singing to an enthusiastic and packed auditorium? Only a talented few, however, have the voice, presence, and interpretive skills that will bring an audience to its feet and result in thunderous applause. Unless…
Marguerite Dumont is a socialite with more money than singing ability. This French film with subtitles is based on the true life story of Florence Foster Jenkins who was similarly talent challenged. (Stephen Frears’s film, which will star Meryl Streep as Jenkins will be released in May.) The plot takes a page from “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” with everyone around Marguerite (Catherine Frot, who won a César for her performance) afraid to tell her that she can’t sing. At the top of the list is Marguerite’s husband, Georges (André Marcon), who needs her money to keep his failing business afloat. Just attending her performances, even when they are staged in their home, is too painful so he frequently invents car trouble to arrive late.
The situation, however, is about to get complicated. A young journalist, Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and one of his anarchist friends, Kyril (Aubert Fenoy) climb over the Dumont mansion walls to sneak into one of Marguerite’s concerts. The event is billed as a fund raiser for war orphans. (The film is set in 1921, in the aftermath of World War One). The elegantly dressed audience can barely hide laughter when Marguerite begins shrieking several arias. During one she sings with Hazel (Christa Théret), a truly talented young soprano. Lucien, while flirting with Hazel, decides to have some fun with Marguerite. He writes a review titled “The Ophan’s Voice,” and while not specifically a rave, bolsters Marguerite’s determination to keep working on her operatic career.
Also encouraging Marguerite to continue is her butler, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga). While he seems protective of Marguerite, he also has a motive. He hopes that all the photographs he takes of her in costumes will one day be worth a great deal of money. He’s a brooding presence and when the camera focuses on his eye through the camera lens appears truly sinister.
Marguerite has her sights set on a big concert in a big hall. She’s convinced to train with a voice teacher, Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau), whose career is on the wane and, like so many around Marguerite, needs money. Although he’s appalled by her voice, as well as by his decision to trade what’s left of his integrity for cash, he stays the course.
The character of Marguerite could easily have become annoying. And truly, the shrieking is, at times, hard to take. Yet Frot’s Marguerite is not a preening diva, but a woman following her dream, albeit a goal that will always remain out of reach. She’s kind and considerate to those around her and even Lucien, who sets out to exploit her, becomes one of her supporters. Georges, too, in the end tries to shield Marguerite from learning the truth about her singing. For him, it’s no longer about the money, and all about protecting her. When Marguerite finally steps on that stage, like the audience in the film, we hold our breath, hoping for a miracle.
Marguerite opens nationwide Friday, March 25, 2016.