|'You can't shake the feeling that you're watching something at least semi-concerned with the fragile egos of the 1%.'|
For a decade now Stephen Frears and real-life Drama has equalled Oscar interest. Whatever you think about what might be considered the director's lesser works the majority of Frears' films do have a relatively consistent look and feel to them. A dedication to straight storytelling, shot through with the candour of British brusqueness. A colour and look that is almost as much day time TV as it is big budget movie. Frears doesn't attract the auteur label, probably because we like to think of auteurism as looking a little bit smarter than this, but the fact that his films manage to be recognisably his films suggest that he isn't far removed from the criteria.
Florence Foster Jenkins, currently in the middle of its own awards push, is another Frears film very much in the mould of the director's previous offerings. It can't escape the problems that those offerings have come with, but there is something new here too.
Frears, here dealing with the titular New York socialite (Meryl Streep), who herself is dealing with an inability to sing, finds within this film a welcome touch of character ambiguity. Come the finale some things have happened (most, it must be said, of rather small import), but the blame for those things remains largely unallocated. Florence herself is naive and too far removed from the world she wants to play to to get any sort of grip on a level of reality. Her philandering husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), clearly panders too much to her whims and needs in pursuit of finding for her a cloistered satisfaction that can never exist when shared with a reactionary public. That public too, Frears turning the camera on us, reacts like a rabbit in the headlights. Should they encourage Florence because she's a trier (as suggested by one character, who undergoes a farcical turnaround during the film), or unveil the truth that her skills are lacking?
There's some engaging material here then and the film's willingness to present each character in turn as deeply flawed, whilst still giving them gently comedic lines, shows the director's continuing and welcome dedication to populism and entertainment.
But, like Florence herself, there is a lack of serious depth here which just leaves the film skating on thin thematic ice. The conflict is to do with whether anyone will find out that Florence is really a rubbish singer. Greater stakes there have surely been, even in lesser morsels. Christian McKay shows up at a couple of points as a journalist threatening to 'out' the lead. In another film, he would be the hero; a bastion of the free press, who refuses St Clair's bribes to cut to the truth. Here he's the villain. You can't shake the feeling that you're watching something at least semi-concerned with the fragile egos of the 1%. The characters are charming, as you might expect, but they are also almost furiously empty and Frears never finds a depth that might have lifted them and his film to more substance.