Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield when we first see him, cavalierly, knowingly, giving an inadequate rendition of one of Hamlet’s speeches before his wife comes on stage
Meryl Streep as Florence singing ecstatically (2016, Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by Stephen Frears, scripted by Nicolas Martin)
Dear friends and readers,
Just as I began to give up hoping for a truly good absorbing film for cinemas this summer, along came three: in July Shemi Zarhin’s The Kind Words urging us to give over unreal ethnicities; in early August Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople in rural impoverished worlds, and now the extraordinary Stephen Frears and Nicolas Turner’s Florence Foster Jenkins, with a little help from Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep.
At first the film seems to be about an over-dressed, naively happy, fatuously absurd Florence, a wealthy woman kept apart from most other people by her somewhat younger, carefully preserved coolly impossibly husband: since she is a philanthropist most institutions are prepared to indulge her in whatever she wants in the way of concerts, no matter how corny, creaking or badly done. St Clair has hired a voice coach and we watch him hire Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) a piano-player musician to play and give her voice lessons. When Florence is not around, St Clair’s face goes hard and asks brief cynical questions about what we’ve seen him smile pleasantly and coo over. We begin to suspect a pervasive underlying studied hypocrisy when at night St Clair wishes Florence a good night’s rest, and himself goes to a Greenwich village or lower Manhattan slum block where he finds his mistress a young beautiful Kathleen (Rebecca Fergusson) waiting for him. He lives another different life with this mistress: wild modern dancing, late night parties, strong drinking promiscuous sex going on around him. He is then just so sweetly affectionate to her, so controlled, hiding from her life’s unpleasant truths that it feels like a performance. Then we discover Florence cannot sing, her voice is reedy, awful, she can’t hold a tune.
As the movie progresses we begin to see that this steely-performance of St Clair where he protects this wife of his from every adverse criticism made of her is not hollow. It cannot be as he gives over his whole being to it: he has to work very hard to prevent anyone who would laugh at or heckle her from coming to any of her performances. He does not have to do any of this to remain rich; she need not perform to be worshipped. Her singing lessons do keep the two of them busy, and her pre-occupied, seeing herself as endlessly working at something beautiful. To silence or get people to cooperate, he hand white envelopes stuffed with cash to people. Those who will not cooperate are excluded from performances and their drawing-room.
Their back story emerges as he, and then she, confide in McMoon: as a 19 year old she married a cad who had syphilus, the cad de-camped, died, and one day in an audience she spotted St Clair who she says had the kindest most generous smile she’d ever seen on a face. They abstained from sex lest he become diseased or she have a diseased child. There’s an intense pathos to the story as she tells it to Cosme whom she has visited on one of St Clair’s golf weekends (we know he has gone to the Hamptons with Kathleen). Cosme is continually on the edge of quitting lest he lose all respect as a serious musician, and when Florence comes up with the idea of playing at Carnegie Hall to thousands, balks; in response St Clair tells Cosme he must not obey the tyranny of ambition to be great, or respected as wonderful, or his art even understood — all egoistic delusions in probability: he found himself a failed stage actor when he met St Clair, and when she married him, he liberated himself from ambition to live this comfortable life.
But is it? is it comfortable? is he in a prison of performances to get his hands on her will (which she carries about her in a briefcase). The movie asks, how far is all life a performance? what are worthy goals?
If the mark of a summer movie is non-seriousness underlying the performance, Frears has never in all the films I’ve seen by him resorted to such obvious broad caricatures: the sexy blonde vulgar noisy young wife is just one. OTOH: when St Claire reads aloud to Florence Shakespeare’s cliched 116th sonnet (“Let me to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”), the joke is Shakespeare was ironic (most readers seem not to know this), making fun. Anyhow Florence falls asleep before he’s finished the first eight lines. Late in the movie he reads aloud Keat’s “Bright Star” sonnet: same response from Florence, pathetically grateful but in actuality bored so falls asleep.
Streep and Grant deliver as exquisitely perfect performances as I remember Grant doing as a young man in Remains of the Day (where Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins were the pitch perfect people who missed out). Grant is underrated as an actor since he made his place in Hollywood films as a fine comic actor in Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and in beloved costume dramas like Sense and Sensibility or Maurice. I first saw him and Bob Hoskins in a filmed version of Thomas Middleton’s brilliant Jacobean play, The Changeling. Grant was corrupt weakling duke who nonetheless becomes a relentless murder out of sexual jealousy; Hoskins the hired thug killer who himself lives out seething resentments. I felt Grant saw some of his own choices in his role. He left the serious stage for Hollywood and has not looked back.
Streep’s role was harder to play” as Grant melts into tenderness, opens his face up to recognize “Bunny’s” dependency on him to her, she has to seem mostly obtuse and yet capable of the finest feeling, at once ridiculous and courageous. She is our American version of the British grand-dame actresses (e.g., Lindsay Duncan, Emma Thompson).
Reviews have been generous, noting the sentimentality at the close: far too forgiving and benign, sliding over after pointing to the cruelty of crowds, the stupidity of audience mob-like reactions, how no one really cares what this music is. The New York Times reminds us these were a real couple in the 1940s and that Helberg stole the show with his shock, distress, and at the end sparkling identification with his two bosses. We are left in two minds about the principals: how far was she fooled? she has a wise desperate look on her worn face as she lies dying in her closing moments. Did or how far did St Clair Bayfield love her and his life as her tender protector? he seems never to hurt her which is way beyond probable if it was just the money. The credits afterward included photos of the real original people. Cosme never became a great musician; his reached his heights in venues at Carnegie hall with Florence. St Claire late in life looks utterly non-pretentious; after that last performance and her illness killed her, he never remarried.
To return to my first paragraph: there is something delightful in all three, Kind Words, Wilderpeople, Florence, and we are badly in need of delight this August.