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Streep's perfectly imperfect pitch

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'Florence Foster Jenkins' a tale of indefatigable passion

Just what is it with Meryl Streep and singing these days?

No one is going to dispute Ms. Streep's place at the top of the heap as far as actresses go she's pretty clearly the best of her generation and probably ever. And it stands to reason that a career as vast and varied as hers is going to feature some odd stretches.

However, her latest 'Florence Foster Jenkins,' based on a true story marks her third major release out of the last four where she sings (along with 'Into the Woods' and 'Ricki and the Flash'). It isn't a bad thing she's great in these films just like she's great in everything but it makes for an odd blip on a storied resume. However, this latest one is a little different.

See, this time, she has to sing badly. And big surprise she's great at that, too.

Streep stars as the titular Florence Foster Jenkins, a longtime patron of New York City's music scene. She has contributed vast amounts of both time and money in her quest to support and celebrate the musical arts; even as her health has deteriorated into the 1940s, she maintains her passion.

By her side is her devoted husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'), a failed actor who dotes on Florence throughout her waking hours and then retires to another apartment with his girlfriend Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson, 'Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation'). It's an unspoken arrangement that actually comes off a bit less caddish than it sounds.

Despite her ill health, Florence decides to once again undertake her own musical studies. She enlists the services of noted vocal coach John Totten (Allan Corduner, 'Woman in Gold') and recruits a quietly awkward accompanist named Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, TV's 'The Big Bang Theory'), all with her husband's dutiful support.

There's just one problem. She's simply a terrible singer. Truly awful.

But those closest to her, rather than allow her to know the truth, simply agree to support her in her dream, absurd as it is. Totten praises her potential and Bayfield stacks her audiences with supportive friends and paid-off critics to create a bubble of safety around her, all in an attempt to keep Florence happy.

Things start going off the rails when Florence decides to make a record. She winds up distributing it not only to friends and well-wishers, but others as well, creating cracks in the bubble that Bayfield and company have spent years constructing. And when she decides that she's going to rent out Carnegie Hall for a concert a concert over whose audience Bayfield will have no control Florence Foster Jenkins is destined to find out what people really think of her musical acumen.

The story of Florence Foster Jenkins is a fascinating one. She refused to allow her lack of ability stand in the way of striving for her dreams. Granted, vast inherited wealth makes that sort of thing a little easier, but still the passion can't be denied.

The film is a lovely period piece, capturing the spirit of a small slice of NYC's upper crust in the waning days of World War II. Director Stephen Frears has proven in the past to have an eye for the necessary aesthetics of this sort of film; he does good work in bringing Nicholas Martin's script to life. It is a small, emotionally engaging film that serves as ideal counterprogramming for the tail end of blockbuster season.

Still, the lion's share of the credit for the film's success goes to Streep. There are only so many superlatives with which she can be showered; this is yet another outstanding turn from an actress whose greatness cannot be argued. Her Florence is a sweet, engaging woman lit from within by a passionate spark, filled with bright innocence that Streep captures exquisitely.

Working alongside Streep is no easy feat, but this cast proves up to the task. Grant hasn't been this good in years, somehow making Bayfield into a sympathetic character despite some less-than-gentlemanly behaviors; a gold digger whose own heart proves golden. Ferguson and Corduner and a number of other supporting players also do some fine work. However, the revelation has to be Helberg, who is absolutely phenomenal as the shy, quirky McMoon; his performance is almost as crucial as Streep's and he does not disappoint.

'Florence Foster Jenkins' isn't a perfect film there are some tonal inconsistencies and occasional narrative wanderings but the exceptional performances more than make up for those relatively minor flaws. For those sick of superheroes and CGI, Streep and company offer the antidote.

Terrible singing never sounded so sweet.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 14 August 2016 16:57

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