Florence Foster Jenkins

florence

I’ve been wanting to watch this movie, starring my favourite actress Meryl Streep, from the time I first set my eyes on the trailer about six months ago. It’s finally here, so I made it a point to watch the first screening this morning. One of two other reasons for wanting to watch it at the first opportunity are that Simon Helberg (who plays Florence’s accompanist in the movie) said of his piano skills in an interview quoted in The Straits Times (many months ago) that he landed the role because “I can play anything you throw at me. Lang Lang needs to watch his back.” (Lang Lang is my idol, an internationally acclaimed pianist.) The third reason I couldn’t wait to watch the movie is to find out why a Bechstein piano is featured so prominently in a story that involves Carneige Hall, and not a Steinway. (Both were founded within one year of each other, with the latter first.)

The opening credits already portends an enjoyable two hours ahead, what with jazzy background music. And the opening scene with Hugh Grant performing an excerpt from Hamlet on the stage of The Verdi Club sets the tone. The biopic covers onlyMdm Florence’s life in 1944. She was a New York society lady whose wealth and status shielded her from discovering how terrible she was doing the thing she loved – singing. Streep’s performance is  without doubt spectacular, stunning and exquisite. She sings in Russian, German and French, besides English. There are opera tunes by Delibes, Mozart and Johann Strauss II besides endearing songs by Stephen Foster and Johannes Brahms (the famous Lullaby). Streep is able to marry the horrendous with the comic as well as the beautiful. You really have to hear her sing to believe it.

From his audition piece (The Swan from Carnival of Animals by C. Sant- Saens, to pieces that he plays for Mdm Florence when she’s doing something else (eg. Hungarian Rhapsody by Franz Liszt) to jazzy pieces, blues and ragtime music, I was mesmerised and awed by his pianistic skills. One scene that I enjoyed very much was when he played Frederick Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor as a duet with Mdm Florence. Besides, Helberg is also a good actor. He has a highly expressive face that can convey shock, horror, comedy, resignation and much more.

Another pleasant surprise was seeing Hugh Grant dancing. He might have had a stand-in or body double for this lengthy number, but it was convincing and effective. His role as Florence’s adoring and doting younger husband is not an uncomplicated one, and he delivers it with pomp. I had almost forgotten what a fine actor he is and I used to enjoy his movies. One phrase he uses here I found particularly delightful (“in a demisemiquaver”), especially the way he delivers it.

With the  legendary Toscanini and Cole Porter among the characters in the movie, and plenty more music including those by Richard Wagner and Johannes Sebestian Bach, and of course with one crucial scene taking place at the famed Carnegie Concert Hall (with a Steinway grand piano), this is definitely one movie that I willl watch again and again!

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