The Watchers

The Watchers

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins (UK Cert PG)

The story of American soprano Florence Foster Jenkins may not be known to many, but that will change with the latest film by Stephen Frears (Philomena, Mrs Henderson Presents, The Queen) which stars Meryl Streep in the title role. 

Jenkins was famed for being one of the worst singers to perform in public (a posthumous collection of her recordings has the slightly arch title Murder On The High Cs). An eccentric New York heiress, Jenkins wanted to become an opera singer and had the money to indulge that desire- despite not having the requisite talent to go with it. She was consistently flat, with very little sense of pitch or rhythm, appalling foreign pronunciation and attempted songs that were far beyond her range and ability (such as the challenging 'Queen Of The Night' aria from The Magic Flute). She only ever gave one recital to which the general public could attend, booking out Carnegie Hall in October 1944 when she was at the grand age of 76. She was once quoted as saying 'People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing' (an admirable sentiment)

Frears' film takes a standard biopic approach, with the climax being the Carnegie Hall performance. 

Streep's performance is, as you would expect, flawless (even if the script doesn't always match). She plays Jenkins' eccentric little tics broadly but without ever lapsing into caricature, whilst also showing a more tender and emotional side- Jenkins had a tragic early marriage to a man who would give her syphilis on her wedding night (which may have accounted for some of her difficulties in later life). Her bad singing is very bad, so bad as to almost be good (much like playing the piano, it seems one has to be very good at something to do it badly). 

Hugh Grant gives one of his best performances in years as St Clair Bayfield, Jenkins' second husband, a Shakespearean actor who later acted as her manager. He's sweetly indulgent of Jenkins' plans, never once pulling her short or bringing her back to earth, supporting her and protecting her even in the face of public ridicule (on the morning after the Carnegie Hall recital, he tries to buy every copy of a newspaper he knows has written a scathing review). There's a bit of unnecessary padding showing his relationship with another woman- because of Jenkins' illness, arrangements were made for Bayfield in what appears to be a kind of 'don't ask, don't tell'- which, for me, detracted from the main story, although there is a good turn by Rebecca Ferguson as 'the other woman'.

There's a lovely, gauche and very unassuming performance by The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg who plays Jenkins' accompianist Cosme McMoon. We see him auditioning for her at the beginning and is aghast at the first time he actually hears Jenkins sing. He is much more the voice of reason- although only ever to Bayfield, never to Jenkins herself. Yet, he remains loyal throughout despite his reservations.  

It's a gentle, almost Sunday afternoon film- there's no strong swearing, no violence, no graphic sex- and veers between laugh-out-loud comedy and a touching drama about a woman who never let her lack of talent hold her back. Joyous.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Saturday, 4 June 2016

Review: Trumbo (UK Cert 15)

The story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo may not be widely known but his treatment- and the treatment of the others known as the Hollywood Ten, all of whom were blacklisted by the industry for their association with Communism and some of whom were imprisoned for contempt by refusing to name names at the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)- remains one of the most shameful periods in Hollywood history. A new film, directed by Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet The Parents), tells his story with Bryan Cranston starring as the titular screenwriter.

Trumbo was (or had been) an active member of the Communist Party of the USA but was one of those subpoena'd to appear before the HUAC. He was found guilty of contempt and was imprisoned for 11 months. After his imprisonment, he went on to continue screenwriting under a pseudonym for a studio that specialised in B-movies. He also wrote the story for Roman Holiday but gave it to fellow writer Ian McLellan Hunter who acted as a front. He also wrote another film that won an Oscar for its screenplay- The Brave One- which was also awarded pseudonymously. It was only in 1960 when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger publicly acknowledged his writing for Spartacus and Exodus respectively that his blacklisting ceased. 

Cranston's performance is strong, bordering on mannered on occasions, but full of vigour. Luckily, Trumbo is not portrayed as a mere saint or martyr; he is given shade, mostly by being an objectionable, irascible pain in the arse to his family members who he has working for him as he tries to finish his B-movie scripts (often writing in the bath). A particularly strong moment is when Trumbo butts heads with John Wayne over his World War II record. Cranston's performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (the film's only nomination) and he also had a load of other Best Actor nominations. It's deserved; it's a powerful performance even if the writing tends to be a bit simplistic at times.

Helen Mirren gives a delightfully venomous edge to her portrayal of Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist who was one of the main opponents of Communists, using her position to name names, even going so far as to threaten one of the studio heads with exposure if he didn't fall in line. There are stong supporting turns for Louis C.K. as blacklisted writer Arlen Hird (a composite character of several other writers) and Michael Stuhlbarg as actor Edward G. Robinson who eventually did testify at the HUAC hearings (although denied ever naming names). Not all characters are as strongly fleshed out however: Diane Lane doesn't have much to do as Trumbo's wife Cleo, for instance. 

The film has come in for some criticism about the representation of Trumbo- who apparently had outspoken support for brutal Soviet-style regimes- and also about the historical accuracy (or otherwise) of what's presented. Every storyteller has an agenda and will pick and choose what to leave in and what to leave out and how to use what they've left in. You have to accept what's being presented in front of you. Here, there are moments of didacticism. There are several clumsily-executed homilies about truth and justice which jar but that's squarely a problem with John McNamara's script. 

This is a solid, if unremarkable, biopic but a story that definitely needs to be told.

Rating 3 out of 5