Florence Foster Jenkins – A Review

Stephen Frears directs Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg in the biopic Florence Foster Jenkins. Florence was a New York socialite, the founder of The Verdi Club and a patron of the music scene in the city. Florence’s record The Glory of the Human Voice was chosen by David Bowie as one of his top 25 vinyl possessions and Florence was also laughed at by many who dubbed her the women with the worst singing voice. Frears having previously tackled aging divas with Helen Mirren in The Queen and Judi Dench in Philomena is the perfect choice to bring to the big screen the life of this enigmatic artist and who better than Meryl Streep to play her.


We all know the basic premise – Florence Foster Jenkins had an unusual singing voice and in comparison to traditional classically trained musicians she sounded terrible. The trailers have masterfully built up the anticipation of just how terrible did Florence sound especially how will Meryl, who has a better than average singing voice as witnessed in Mama Mia! and Into the Woods, take on the bad singing. From the opening sequence you are waiting for her to dive into her singing and it does happen, the anticipation builds. You see Florence play the angel of inspiration with a  golden harp and the Viking Valkyrie in stage productions and you still waiting on bated breath to hear her sing the first note. It it not until Simon Helberg as Cosme McMoon ( Howard from The Big Bang Theory) is selected as the pianist to assist Florence that you are rewarded to the truly atrocious singing. It is so bad that with every progressing note you are overtaken by a fit of giggles, as the notes get more off key so do the guffaws – you are no longer politely sniggering into your palm, I was howling both with laughter and the stitch in my side from trying to stifle the laughing. Meryl is masterful! You see her earnestly try to sing and the looks of surprise from Cosme as sounds that cannot possibly be human come out of Florence’s mouth. For Florence it might have been natural but it must take an exceptional amount of talent to be this bad on purpose and no one but Meryl could have taken this on. She makes you feel bad for Florence – about her delusions of grandeur but also about her naivety and innocence about the whole thing.

Meryl is very ably supported by her doting husband, a failed Shakespearean actor St Clair Bayfield played by Hugh Grant. Grant was lured out of retirement by Frears by the script and he is marvellous in this role. There are more layers to Bayfield than meets the eye at the outset. His devotion to Florence is complete but he is not without his flaws and towards the end you are left questioning if they really are flaws at all. Simon Helberg is unrecognizable as the soft spoken and delicate Cosme McMoon who is a stark contradiction to how he plays Howard Wolowitz on the hugely popular The Big Bang Theory. Here Helberg makes no eye contact, talks in dulcet tones and is constantly in a fit of giggles. Being the 1940s there are mere hints at McMoon’s sexuality and it is dealt with deftly. Alexandre Desplat is the other supporting character who does well to lift the story with his skilful background score. Where I found the movie lacking was in the character actors who played the bit parts but were curcial to the proceedings. Nina Arianda as the showgirl Mrs Agnes Stark and Rebecca Fergusson as the mistress Kathleen are beautiful to look at and while not particularly bad they are less than believable in their roles. Perhaps a little more time devoted to their character would have helped.

That minor misstep aside what really shines is the story and how Frears slowly unravels it. You find out a little bit about each of the characters slowly as the story progresses. You are given an insight into Florence’s backstory, her idiosyncrasies, her penchant for dressing in outfits laden with feathers and sequins, and her delusions of youth and grandeur as she dresses up and dances awkwardly while performing at Carnegie Hall.

There is no way this is not going to be Nomination number 20 for Meryl Streep because she is incredible as Florence Foster Jenkins and she manages to make you fall in love with the New York socialite with the worst singing voice every. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments and sweet tender moments that tug at your heart strings. A beautiful devoted romance between Streep and Grant and a stellar turn by Simon Helberg. Try not to scour the internet for Meryl’s singing as Florence Foster Jenkins – let yourself be surprised in the theatre and trust me you will be doubling over with laughter when you first hear the sounds!



The Hundred Foot journey – A Review

Lasse Hallstrom directs Helen Mirren, Om Puri and Manish Dayal in The hundred foot journey based on a story adapted by Steven Knight from Richard C. Morais’ book by the same name. Many have described this as slumdog millionaire meets Ratatouille as some sort of a championing of the movie. While I agree with the slumdog bit I do completely disagree with the Ratatouille which was in my opinion a more earnest and honest movie and perhaps the best Pixar have ever managed.

The story starts with Hassan at the immigration counter answering the questions asked by the officer that also works as a backdrop of quickly rushing through the backstory to how Hassan came to be in “Europe” after having already landed in the United Kingdom after having sought asylum following the Hindu Muslim riots in Mumbai where he lost his mentor – his mom. 

Back story done with we proceed to how they end up in the rustic French village with an abandoned villa/restaurant up for sale. This is the part where the movie is at its best as Om Puri the patriarch of the Kadam family digs his heels in to battle Madam Mallory played by the indomitable Helen Mirren the owner of the Michelin starred French restaurant.

There is a budding romance between Hassan and sous chef Marguerite which remains entirely unexplored. The culinary clash of the classical French and the boisterous Indian cuisines also is almost entirely forgotten except as an insult that Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam hurl at one another.  The editing and the screenplay leave a lot to be desired. Basing my judgment on a book review of Morais’ original material there seems to be a lot more meat in the book than what is presented on the screen. The episodes in Hassan’s rise to the top of the Parisian culinary world seem to be rather abrupt at best and callous at worst.  Take for instance the turn of events after Hassan earns the second Michelin star at Mallory’s restaurant he simply takes off for Paris because Marguerite says that he will be approached with offers. The despair Hassan feels while plating up pretentious food while in Paris seems unfounded and sudden and the decision to move back just as irrational. The frustration with the movie is because all the ingredients are present to plate up delectable dish that is as pleasing to the palate as it is appealing to the eyes but instead of gently whisking the yolks of the story on a bain-marie to form the perfect sabayon the director, the editor and the writers vigorously whisk it in the direct heat which ends up in a curdled mess. Another concern I have is with the research that has gone into this – Hassan and his family are presented as Muslims and yet the movie commits blasphemy by cooking the lamb in wine without any hesitation. I do not know if this is the lack of research on the part of the original book or another one of the blunders in the screenplay and direction.

There are some genuinely funny moments and some moments that hold promises but eventually what gets plated up is visually enticing but lacking the punch of garam masala and the restraint of the hollandaise. Watch it for a fine turn by Helen Mirren, Om Puri and Manish Dayal and for A.R. Rehman’s enticing background music.Also theres Juhi Chawla as lovely as ever playing Hassan’s mother – why isn’t she in more films is baffling to me.