Florence Foster Jenkins

Director: Stephen Frears (2016)

Big screen diva Meryl Streep launches a ferocious assault on your ears in this biopic of the worlds worst opera singer.

As the title character, her ignorance of a lack of talent is a punishing off note joke.

But if you can endure Streep’s cacophony of comic caterwauling, there’s a lot of enjoyment in the tender chemistry created with her on screen husband St. Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant.

It’s New York 1944 and heiress Florence is an overly generous patron of the arts whose entourage exploits her good nature for cash.

Determined to aid the war effort, she books herself a gig at Carnegie Hall and gives a thousand servicemen free tickets.

This threatens St. Clair’s luxurious life as neither he, tutors or muscians dare tell Florence the painful truth about her lack of ability, for fear of being put out on their arias.

Director Stephen Frears’ lack of visual ambition is compensated by adhering to the narrative and focusing on character.

He’s rewarded with two marvellous performances as the leads stretch their throats in extraordinary ways.

Grant has never better. With the fading of his still considerable leading man looks, his tremendous talent shines ever brighter. He gave a light comic masterclass in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and here he dances like a young James Stewart.

Streep was last seen singing on screen as a bar room rocker in the weak Ricki And The Flash (2015) and here gives a performance of grand neurotic eccentricity.

The stars essay a complex relationship while the script saves its mockery for the sycophants who surround them.

Rebecca Ferguson is under served as St. Clair’s lover but Nina Arianda is show stopping as a ticking blonde bombshell, threatening blow up the whole charade whenever she speaks her mind.

This is the second telling of the story this year, after the French language version Marguerite (2016) which won 4 prestigious Cesar awards.

This version is undemanding with broad appeal, and you don’t have to appreciate opera to enjoy it.

 

 

Suffragette

Director: Sarah Gavron (2015)

Political passion and personal punishment power a prodigious performance in this stirring historical drama.

In the dark, violent world of 1912, a young mother risks everything as she battles the government for the right to vote.

Fictitious characters mix with real people and events to create a gripping story filled with emotional truth.

Following her excellent turn in Far From The Madding Crowd (2015), Carey Mulligan gives another mesmerising performance as factory worker and reluctant activist Maud Watts.

Her young son George is ominously diagnosed by Helena Bonham Carter’s chemist as ‘a bit chesty’.

Hardworking and aspirational, Maud is drawn into the bosom of the suffragettes and their world of nighttime rallies, back room meetings and property attacks.

Soon she feels the full force of the law in the form of the intelligence gathering Special Branch and truncheon wielding constables.

With Maud’s behaviour considered to be madness not badness, she’s ostracised, beaten, jailed and endures a hunger strike.

Radicalised by her experiences, she is soon waging a guerrilla war alongside veteran campaigner Emily Davison.

It mostly involves blowing up the UK’s communications infrastructure. i.e. postboxes.

Corrupt politicians collude with the media to keep the violent campaign off the front pages.

In desperation to  be heard, the women seize upon a target so big as to be impossible to ignore.

At times the heartbreaking events resemble the grimmer moments of Les Miserables (2012). With the thankful exception of the awful sing-alongs.

It’s an inspiring tale of kindness, courage and comradeship Which at times tries too hard. We’ve long since been won over by Maud by the time she’s reduced to waiting in the rain.

An intelligent script insists the women are fighting a war and the dialogue includes frequent exhortations for them never to give up.

It celebrates their bravery and solidarity against the state who use covert surveillance and brutality to suppress a popular political uprising.

However it aligns the direct methods and organisational prowess of the suffragettes with historical and contemporary terrorist groups such as the IRA.

This may prove problematical to viewers. It’s certainly the starting point for an interesting debate.

Cinematographer Edu GrauIt captures the drama in palettes of browns and greys, as films of this sort so often are.

Better known as James Bond’s Q, soft spoken Ben Whishaw is counter-intuitively cast as Maud’s working class barrow boy husband Sonny.

His subtle acting suggests a marriage of convenience and as the story progresses, Sonny’s feebleness adds perspective to Maud’s situation.

Geoff Bell stops shy of pantomime as an abusive factory boss and the film is not too sure what to do with Brendan Gleeson’s cop. His concerned reasonableness challenges you to remember he’s one of the guys.

Meryl Streep makes a brief and typically stagey appearance as head girl Emmeline Pankhurst. It veers towards an impersonation of Maggie Smith in TV’s Downton Abbey.

In The Iron Lady (2011) cinema’s grand dame won an Oscar for playing the famously unsisterly first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

During her divisive time in office she was not for turning when it came to civil unrest and terrorist campaigns.

Spoken of in hushed voices in her absence, Pankhurst addresses a crowd messianically from a balcony and a signed book is passed around as if a holy relic.

This is the nearest religion comes to being referenced in the film.

There are no priests in the church which offers sanctuary to the dispossessed and the position of the established church seems to be one of benign neutrality.

This despite organised religion having a poor track record in the public arena of women’s rights.

Made In Dagenham (2010) showed car factory workers campaigning for equal pay in the 1970’s. Suffragette is a spiritual prequel and in the 60 odd years between the periods portrayed, it’s sobering to realise how little progress had been made.

As a representative of all the foot soldiers of the suffrage movement, Mulligan’s emotional performance puts us at the heart of their struggles against the established order.

She easily wins my vote for 2016’s Best Actress Oscar.

Ricki and the Flash

Director: Jonathan Demme (2015)

Strip out Meryl Streep’s charisma and we’re left with slim pickings in this redemptive rock ‘n’ roll drama.

She plays plucky Ricki, a divorced middle-aged check-out operator who rocks out with her own band in the local spit and sawdust joint at night.

News of her daughter’s divorce and depression sends Ricki flying to her bedside, only to discover her presence is barely tolerated never mind welcomed.

There’s squabbles aplenty as retail therapy replaces psychotherapy, but not much else happens.

There’s talk of attempted suicide and bankruptcy but the most eventful scene involves spilt ice cream and teenage-like strops.

Full of life’s regrets and the guilt of poor parenting, Ricki faces the hardest gig of her life as she struggles to gain the love and respect of her estranged family.

Streep’s acting is as relentless as her singing as she dominates every scene with scant regard to her fellow performers. She delights in being lewd and revels in her pot smoking, hard drinking rock persona.

Mamie Gummer as Ricki’s daughter Julie isn’t over-awed by sharing the screen with her real life-life mother.

Kevin Kline is far form the master of his own house as ex husband Pete and Rick Springfield is whiny as lead guitarist Greg of her racially representative backing band, The Flash.

Fans of the triple Oscar winner and weak cover U2 versions will probably find more to enjoy here than I did.

★★☆☆☆

Into The Woods

Director: Rob Marshall (2014)

Disney embraces the dark side in this dazzling big budget live-action adaption of the award-winning magical musical fairytale.

Based on the stories of the Brothers Grimm, the wicked lyrics of songwriting maestro Stephen Sondheim are performed by an all-star cast on top form.

Plus as great sets and costumes boost the sometimes uninspired direction, it all makes for a spooky and frequently funny fantasy.

Once upon a time, a baby-stealing witch (Meryl Streep) has cursed the house of a poor baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) so they cannot conceive a baby.

Corden and Blunt share a bickering chemistry and play commendably straight which allows the more fantastical characters to showboat.

Streep indulges herself with may a shriek and cackle as the witch who is also under a spell, forcing the couple to help her before she will lift their curse.

They must go into the woods to find a white cow, a golden slipper, a red cape and some yellow hair before the full moon in three days’ time.

On the way, they meet familiar characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, played by an astonishingly confident and scene-stealing teenage Lilla Crawford.

She is of course preyed upon by the big bad wolf, an excellent Johnny Depp in an extended cameo.

There’s also Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), Jack of the beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) giants, ghosts and some golden eggs, Anna Kendrick is pitch perfect as Cinderella.

She is pursued by a a philandering Prince (Chris Pine). He’s wonderfully vain, self-centred and thoroughly enjoys himself delivering the funniest song and the best line.

Proving you should be careful what you wish for there are betrayals, mutilations and deaths as well as some unpardonably poor parenting.

As greed is punished and bravery and honesty win out, you won’t fail to be charmed by this wonderful tale’s dark magic.

★★★★☆