Florence Foster Jenkins – 4.5 stars

A charming film, with surprisingly substantial performances by Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory).  The year is 1944 and Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is a patron of music in New York City.  She also has aspirations to perform and her singing voice is, well, it is what it is.  Through the protective machinations of her husband (Grant) and the support of her young accompianist (?) (Helberg), she gives rare public performances, until she squirms out of her protective bubble . . . to Carnegie Hall.

I got down on Streep after two lazy and insufferable performances (the execrable Ricki and the Flash and the loud, gaudy August: Osage County), but she’s back on her game here, infusing in Foster Jenkins a gusto and vulnerability that justifies the latitude she is given by those around her.   The filmmakers portray Foster Jenkins as wholly ignorant of her shortcomings (history suggests she may have been in on the joke), but the decision pays dividends in the creation of greater empathy for her character.  Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) has a way, even in this somewhat broad comedy, of finding the little moments that connect characters, tapping into the hardest of hearts.  A beautiful, simple scene where Helberg and Streep play piano together is one of several such moments.

By the way, Foster Jenkins suffered from syphilis, which I immediately studied (i.e., “Googled”).  I was aghast to learn of its prevalence.  From Essays in History:

Around the turn of the twentieth century, syphilis was a public health disaster in the United States of America. Because of the lack of official reporting of cases to public authorities, estimates of its incidence are difficult to obtain; however, the figure has been estimated conservatively at ten percent to fifteen percent of the general population from about 1900 to 1920, although its occurrence was presumed to be higher among men than women.

 

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