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A Reel Life film section

Issue: Autumn 2016

Florence Forster Jenkins (2016) movie review

The Anti-Diva Florence Forster Jenkin Inspires Two Films

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Movie poster, Florence Forster Jenkins
The inspiring true story of the world's worst singer.

The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice

It is curious that at the moment we have two films showing based on the life of Florence Forster Jenkins. Florence Forster Jenkin's claim to fame was her incredibly excruciating singing which she put on display to a general audience in Carnegie Hall in 1944. She was very rich but her story is of course more than a deluded woman surrounded by sycophants unable to tell her that she could not sing. In American culture she has a certain cult status through some recordings made by Carnegie Hall which apparently are their best sellers. It is the sheer audacity of a person exposing themselves to ridicule which creates the heart of the story and the awe given to the original woman.

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Meryl Street and Hugh Grant in Florence Forster Jenkins

The first of the two films is simply called Florence Forster Jenkins. It is an English production directed by Stephen Frears who treats the whole thing with the same pantomimesque manner he treated a previous favourite The Kings Speech.

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Hugh Grant and Meryl Street in Florence Forster Jenkins

It is a rollicking yarn set in the correct time, the 1940s, and the right place, New York. Which is sort of a queer turn around - an English production with a majority English cast, telling an American story. Of course Meryl Streep takes the lead role and grapples with the off balance Florence with a certain clownish inarticulateness. Hugh Grant enjoys every minute of his role as Florence's husband St. Clair Bayfield of and Simon Helberg, as the accompanist Cosmé McMoon, no I am not kidding, that apparently was the man's name, is actually the reason I would go and see the film. He is the guy who plays Howard in The Big Bang Theory. He is a great actor with his carefully created character with mannerisms to boot is a little reminiscent of Alex Guinness.

And to top off this fun loving biopic Frears ensures we have a medical explanation for the socially inappropriate but rich philanthropist Florence and the issue of money grubbing retainers that is glossed over. The film explains this though a sub plot, which actually takes up most of the film: Husband blaggard or tender protector? Of course this feel good romp plums for tender protector. Florence Forster Jenkins is a feel good romp. I fail to see how the promotions people get away with calling it inspirational as the tv ads have been saying.

Now the second film is only loosely based on the Florence Forster Jenkins story. In Marguerite, an International collaboration between France, the Czech Republic and Belgium, there is a rich woman who thinks she can sing but she embarrassingly can't. This story is set in the 1920s where the hugely wealthy Marguerite is enabled by her husband and her man servant in her delusion that she has sang all the great operatic roles across the Continent. There are endless photos of Marguerite in all the most romantic tableaus from the Operas around her mansion and her fantasy is completed by the attentive audiences to her private music parties. However all the elements of the plot culminate in a final public performance and the shattering of the delusion.

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Catherine Frot in Marguerite © Larry Horrick

Marguerite is directed by Xavier Giannoli, who co-wrote the script with Marcia Romano. It is a sophisticated tragic comedy which delves unsparingly into the characters motivations in what becomes a kind of chess like dance, where those who you first believed were the 'baddies' are given the benefit of the doubt while the 'goodies' become unsettlingly close to the edge of a type of creeping depravity. It is all placed deftly in the context of the shifting political and artistic landscape of 1920s Europe with its hard-core anarchist dada revolution percolating beneath the strictures of bourgeois society. I found Marguerite both stimulating and incredible in some respects. Great acting, great recreation of the time and an intriguing plot.

So the first film Florence Forster Jenkins is a pantomime while Marguerite is a well-constructed feast of a film. Take your pick.

Behind the Scenes Featurette - Florence Forster Jenkins

Trailer - Florence Forster Jenkins

Trailer - Marguerite

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Links to official sites and information about Florence Forster Jenkins see below

For links, photos etc for Marguerite see here.

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by Annie McLoughlin
Australian release 05 May 2016
For credits and official site details, see below
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Just the facts:

Title: Florence Forster Jenkins (2016)
Written by: Nicholas Martin (scr)
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Running time: mins

The Players: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant,Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Helberg, Josh O'Connor,

Official website:
IMDb entry

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