Laugh, Cry and Ponder: Florence Foster Jenkins

There are so many things about Florence Foster Jenkins that I can’t make up my mind about. It is well-acted and well-directed, and I keep pondering its scenes and its characters, trying yet failing to understand them.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is convinced that she has considerable talent as an opera singer. Her accommodating husband (Hugh Grant) sets up concerts in which the entire audience is bribed to praise his wife even though it is evident to everyone present that she cannot sing. Unaware and therefore undeterred, Florence Foster Jenkins takes a professional pianist (Simon Helberg) to accompany her  and she determines to sing an opera recital in Carnegie Hall. Yet the fragile illusion of musical fame that her husband has built for her is bound to crumble. To make matters worse, the would-be opera singer suffers from syphilis and lives in the shadow of imminent death.

Meryl Streep is stunning in her portrayal of the heroine. In her hands Florence Foster Jenkins becomes a truly Quixotic figure: straddling the boundaries of the comic and tragic, as the ludicrousness of her illusions is confronted with her own fragility.  When her husband worries that the strain of her performances might kill her, she tells him that if she dies singing ‘she will die a happy woman’. Florence Foster Jenkins as portrayed by Meryl Streep, is ludicrous, but also truly inspiring. She labours against her own absurdities as well as the absurdities of the world, and she remains unvanquished: ‘People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.’

The laughter at Florence’s inability to sing is shared with her audience who fail to sympathize with the passion for music that drives her. In all of this ,her cinema audience is partly implicated. It is no coincidence that the movie begins as a comedy and moves towards the tragic. To see the tragic, it is necessary to look deeper: to see beyond the squeaks of an elderly lady attempting to sing Mozart, into the motivations that drive her.

Florence Foster Jenkins’s husband, St. Clair, is a still more puzzling figure. As the person who encouraged Florence in her illusions, he might be seen as partially responsible for her suffering. St. Clair started off as a fortune hunter, preying on Florence’s generosity and willing to construct a world that suits her fancy only to keep himself her favourite. His ‘acting’ life involves a mistress on the side, of whom he claims, Florence, is aware, as she must know that she cannot fulfill his sexual needs herself due to her illness. It becomes painfully clear, however, that she is no more aware of his lover than she is of her own lack of talent.

Yet Hugh Grant manages to convince me that his character did finally feel affection towards his wife, and that his attempt to shelter her from the world was more than just an act of self-preservation. I remain undecided on how to judge his character. Perhaps I shouldn’t. It is a temptation hard to resist however, as I struggle to assess the choice he made between the competing values of objective truth and subjective happiness.

In short, Florence Foster Jenkins has made me think . That is always a quality one should appreciate in a film.

Watch the trailer for ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

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