Opening this weekend: Two stories from the 1940s, very different, both worth seeing:
Florence Foster Jenkins—The title character was a much-loved patron of the New York classical music scene who loved to sing. She was a nice lady, and a rich lady, and thus nobody had the heart, or the nerve, to tell her that she sounded like an angry monkey defending its tree branch.
Besides, the carefully cherry-picked audiences for her recitals found her performances funny. In the early ‘40s she cut some records which actually received some radio airplay, and in 1944 finally gave a performance at Carnegie Hall—which, alas, legitimate music critics were able to attend.
This interesting little story from Manhattan’s high-culture scene certainly seems irresistible as movie material (there have already been several stage versions of it). But it also had the potential to make a really ugly movie. Many of us who love music and have no talent still indulge the fantasy of performing, and it could have been agonizingly embarrassing to see the consequences of someone living that fantasy out, especially in front of a smirking audience of musical heavy-hitters.
Happily, Florence Foster Jenkins was helmed by the masterly, old-school Stephen Frears, working from a script by Nicholas Martin. Three years ago Frears brought a gentle, lightly comic energy to Philomena, which could have been a drag for very different, more serious reasons, but instead was a delight. With Florence Foster Jenkins his touch is more broad, even farcical, but the movie has the same generous-hearted tone and emotional maturity, not to mention a lush period atmosphere.
Of course, Frears would have been helpless without Meryl Streep, bringing Florence something of the same dotty lovability that she gave to Julia Child in Julie & Julia. Simon Helberg, as Florence’s accompanist Cosme McMoon, turns his lines into a master class in effete dithering. And as St. Clair Bayfield, the failed Shakespearean and Broadway veteran who became Florence’s manager and common-law husband, Hugh Grant has rarely been better—suavely sheepish and witty in his tireless efforts to keep her reality pleasant, and deluded in his belief that he’s always successful.
Anthropoid—This historical thriller, which dramatizes the plot to assassinate Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942, keeps us tense with murmured conversations in back rooms and furtive romance between bursts of violence. We badly want Czech partisans Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan to succeed in killing “The Butcher of Prague”—an SS bigwig and Chairman of the Wannsee Conference—even though we know that if they do, the reprisals will be horrible, and director Sean Ellis, who co-scripted with Anthony Frewin, uses this ambiguity to give Anthropoid a brooding mix of tragedy and exhilaration.
Squeamish viewers should be forewarned: Anthropoid is gripping, but it’s also Jacobean. There scenes of torture that are hard to watch, and the movie’s sacrificial lambs can be spotted a mile away.