The 29th edition of the Tokyo Film Festival opened on Tuesday with Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. Frears -- who gave us, Philomena (2013), that brilliant take on Irish nuns and how they separated a mother and newborn son and gave him away in adoption to a family in America -- presents a biography this time.
Frears sketches the life of Florence, a soprano, who despite being tone deaf, was so ambitious and was so passionately fired by her love for music that she kept singing. On October 25 1944, as the American and Japanese forces fought one another in the Pacific, Florence sang at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York to a packed audience of 3000 people.
But by the end of the concert, it was clear that Florence had no talent whatsoever, and she stood humiliated with most people in the audience unable to stop laughing at her screeching voice which she passed off for singing.
Her husband, Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) -- a failed actor kept protecting her throughout, and even at the concert, tries to bribe The New York Post’s music critic into writing good things about Florence. But he rips her apart, and in spite of Clair’s best efforts, Florence manages to read the review. She is completely shattered.
The movie is based on a biography by Jasper Rees, and has some scandals to narrate. Florence’s love for potato salad, her syphilis (which she contracted from her first husband when she was barely 18) and some of her eccentricities like carrying her will all the time in a brief case have all be highlighted with mock seriousness.
The daughter of a wealthy Philadelphian and actually a piano prodigy who lost the use of her fingers after she contracts the sexual disease, Florence dies soon after reading the nasty review -- a life that remained largely unfulfilled. She could not even consummate her relationship with Clair because of the fear of passing on her infection. So Clair kept a separate apartment where he met his mistresses (one of them in the movie is played Rebecca Ferguson).
Frears actually underlines an important message in his work: he is critical of all those critics and others who chastise those who try hard but fail. Florence was a great example. And Streep is just compelling as a woman treated unfairly by life, and it is quite possible that her performance would fetch her 20th Oscar nomination.
Matching quite up to her is Grant, who plays a character whose intention is unclear. Does he truly love Florence? Or, is it her money that he is after, a rich woman that she is, having inherited her father’s huge wealth. Frears leaves us with this tingling doubt, but Grant is extremely convincing as a man who fights to keep his wife’s terrible lack of talent hidden from the world -- assuring her all the time that she is brilliant.
In way, there are strong similarities between Philomena (where Judi Dench plays an unhappy and unfulfilled woman having lost her new-born son) and Florence Foster Jenkins. Both works talk about distressed women and their vain struggles. In Philomena, Dench’s title character waits for 50 years before embarking on a search for her son. But she never meets him. Florence keeps looking for that fame which eludes her all her life.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Tokyo International Film Festival.)