Someday, someone may create a role that Meryl Streep can’t play. Now, I have no idea what could that be, perhaps a villain? A small child? I can’t imagine. The actress has proven for more than 40 years, no matter the challenge, she can find a way to make any portrayal breathe. She gives every character a voice.
The voice, actually, is the challenge in Streep’s latest movie delight, Florence Foster Jenkins, about a woman who can’t sing. Or carry a tune. The lady makes noise. Lots of it. This smart, thoughtful, funny film lets us into the life of someone who believes she hears music in every moment she experiences, from the people she meets to the musicians she sponsors to the husband she forgives. She can’t imagine a world without music. Life creates too many sounds to remember and share.
Unfortunately, for those around Florence, this woman believes she can sing. And, most likely, when she sings, she doesn’t hear what everyone else hears. What they consider a screech, she may believe a crescendo; when they hear a flat note, she notes a perfect pitch; when they want to cringe, she wants to smile. That Florence is wealthy enough to find places to sing isn’t what this movie is about, despite what the advertisements suggest. This is a story of a woman who so loves the world, and so cherishes her music, that she wants to bring them together. No matter how that may sound.
Stephen Frears’ movie satisfies because it reaches beyond the joke of a lady who can’t sing. Of course, with the amazing Streep, those scenes of Florence trying to hit the notes are a riot. The actress brings her best comic sense, and her wonderful sense of timing, to sequences that celebrate the pain the human voice can create. But Streep doesn’t try to be funny; this woman sincerely believes she can sing. And the authenticity of this belief gives the movie its sense of caring and truth that accomplish more than inspire laughter. The movie makes us believe in this woman who so loves the world that wants everyone to hear what she hears, every day.
For Streep, the role is a gift, another complex character who comes to life with her wondrous talents. As when she recreated Julia Child a few years ago, Streep has great fun with Florence, recognizing her weaknesses while rejoicing in her aspirations. As with her memorable take on Margaret Thatcher, that brought he Oscar number three, Streep digs beneath the surface to reveal what this woman fears when the music stops. And as in such films as Postcards from the Edge and Into the Woods, Streep uses how she sings to create a character we cherish.
Thanks to the precision of director Frears, who also gave us Dangerous Liaisons, the film never lets itself get too cute. While Hugh Grant is at his most engaging as a man who knows Florence too well, and Simon Helberg scores as a pianist who grows to care for the woman despite the music, Streep gives the movie its heart. She makes us believe that anyone can sing, no matter how they may sound.
Florence Foster Jenkins
- Content: High. Meryl Streep brings all her comic, dramatic and musical sensibility to a delightful tale of a woman who believes she hears beautiful music everywhere.
- Entertainment: High. Thanks to Streep’s ability to bring fascinating characters to life, the movie delights with its view of endearing eccentricities.
- Message: Medium. Yes, the film reminds us that anyone can sing in the shower, and some should stay there. But the fun isn’t dependent on the message.
- Relevance: High. Any opportunity to laugh and smile, and to savor such delightful characters, is always relevant.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You will find yourself remembering many moments. This is an ideal film to share with others.
(Florence Foster Jenkins is rated PG-13 for “brief suggestive material.” The film runs 110 minutes.)
4.5 Popcorn Buckets
From the Archives: The Iron Lady
Meryl Streep’s delightful turn as a lady who believes she can sing in Florence Foster Jenkins brings to mind her brilliant take on a lady who forgets how she can lead in The Iron Lady. This fascinating look at the later years of Margaret Thatcher brought Streep her third Oscar. And it reminds us how this incredible actress can, simply, do anything.
Fact is, no matter what age we are, we may fear getting older. Perhaps we worry about how we will change or how our abilities may be limited. Perhaps our concerns relate to how we will take care of our finances and health. Or perhaps we fear we may forget what we have experienced during our lives.
In her fascinating portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, the longest-serving Prime Minister in British history, Streep reaches beyond a standard recreation of a political figure to develop a multi-layered portrayal of a woman in emotional torment. This former world leader knows, on one level, who she is and what she thinks. But, as she ages, she simply can’t find that woman, no matter how thoughtfully she may search. Streep’s complex performance is one of the most compelling of her career and, deservedly, was named the year’s best by the New York Film Critics.
As a film, The Iron Lady does not rely on the standard biographical narrative to serve its leading actress. The film begins later in Thatcher’s life as she spends her days doing household tasks, keeping track of news events, and talking with her husband, Dennis. The only problem is Dennis is no longer living; the conversations occur in Thatcher’s mind. And, together, they recall a series of meaningful events in this great politician’s life and career.
While the framework may sound familiar, the emerging sequences are fresh. In her younger years, Thatcher is a determined woman who, while recognizing the natural expectations of the sexes in the mid-20th century, believes there is a role for women in politics. Later, in her most productive years, Thatcher emerges as a careful, studied politician who rehearses her spontaneity, dismisses her critics and nurtures her vision for what Britain can be. Ultimately, she becomes a loving and confused woman who simply wonders what she can no longer remember.
Streep commands as Thatcher. The actress perfectly captures the essence of Thatcher’s passion in flashbacks that show how the politician becomes a world leader. In these sequences, Streep doesn’t play Thatcher as much as she becomes Thatcher; rather than copying Thatcher’s mannerisms, she interprets the mannerisms to tell the story. Streep’s scenes as the older, struggling Thatcher are as moving as any she has created for the screen, as the former leader struggles to find words, recall moments and simply remember the extraordinary woman she is. And Streep makes it all look so easy. She is too smart an actress to ever let us see how hard she works. On screen, she simply is.
We may fear how we age and wonder what those years may bring. The Iron Lady offers insight into the challenges one great lady faces. Meryl Streep, who gets better with each year, uses this role to deliver a master class in screen acting. She is the best actress working in films by stretching her talent with every role she portrays. Streep is, simply, ageless.