Movie reviews: Florence Foster Jenkins, I Saw the Light, Knight of Cups

Florence Foster Jenkins 4/5

Movie reviews: Florence Foster Jenkins, I Saw the Light, Knight of Cups

A minor tragedy of self-delusion on an epic scale, Florence Foster Jenkins (PG) stars Meryl Streep in the eponymous role, playing the beloved patron of New York’s classical music world in the mid-1940s.

Florence, a talented pianist in her youth, adores music and has a wonderful ear, but when Florence decides to sing at Carnegie Hall, disaster looms — Florence in full cry sounds like an alley swarming with dying cats.

Based on a true story, adapted by screenwriter Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears, Florence Foster Jenkins is by turns laugh-out-loud funny (Streep stumbling headlong through the scales is comedy-of-embarrassment gold) and heartbreakingly poignant, partly because Florence’s ambition so far exceeds her grasp, and partly because she is daring, emotionally fragile, and utterly charming in her lack of self-awareness.

It’s Streep’s finest turn in years, mainly because her performance is sotto voce, allowing the character’s endearing quirks and idiosyncrasies to speak for themselves.

It would have been easy for Florence, adorned in feather boas and tiaras, to appear utterly ridiculous, but Streep’s delicate touch gradually strips away the eccentricities to reveal Florence’s human frailties.

She gets strong support from Hugh Grant as Florence’s long-suffering and (mostly) dedicated husband St Clair, and Simon Helberg, who plays Cosme McMoon, a pianist commissioned to accompany Florence, aka the little boy who dare not point out that the Empress, musically speaking, wears no clothes.

Stephen Frears directs with panache (complete with old-fashioned screenwipes), fully aware of the story’s comic possibilities but never forgetting the tenderness and compassion that underpins the tale.

I Saw the Light (15A) is a biopic of the seminal country-western singer Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston), who lived fast and hard and died young, leaving behind country music’s most inspiring body of work.

The story opens in 1944, with Hank marrying Audrey Williams (Elizabeth Olson), who has herself ambitions to be a singing star.

Their tempestuous relationship, which is sabotaged time and again by Hank’s excessive drinking and womanising, provides the narrative framework for I Saw the Light, written and directed by Marc Abraham.

The story’s similarity to the Johnny Cash biopic I Walk the Line might well be unavoidable, but the parallels find I Saw the Light suffering by comparison.

Hiddleston certainly looks the part as Hank Williams, deftly charting the singer’s transformation from the bright-eyed charismatic young pretender to hollow-cheeked superstar over the course of his brief career, and Olsen is excellent as the independent woman mocked for her ambition and repeatedly shamed by Williams’ transgressions.

There’s a strong chemistry between the pair, particularly as they’re at one another’s throats for much of the movie, but the more important business (this is a biopic, after all) of Hank Williams’ greatness never really ignites.

It’s a cyclical narrative: Hank drinks, cheats on his wife, and reads in the newspaper that his latest song has hit number one on the charts, and then more or less repeats the experience over and over again.

Marc Abraham is to be applauded for offering us an unvarnished, unsentimental version of Williams’ life, but despite portraying him as the archetype of his genre-defining songs, I Saw the Light remains emotionally unengaging throughout.

Christian Bale stars in Knight of Cups (15A), playing Rick, a successful Hollywood screenwriter struggling to cope with his grief in the wake of his brother’s death.

Written and directed by Terrence Malick, the film opens with an extended quote from Chaucer’s Pilgrim’s Progress, though Rick’s pilgrimage is also informed by a Persian folktale about a knight who finds himself a stranger in a strange land.

In reality, Rick wanders through the opulent, shallow worlds of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, drinking and drugging, cavorting with a host of beautiful women (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots), and arguing with his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley).

It’s technically excellent, as Malick assembles, executes, and edits his scenes to resemble a dream-like fugue state of unbearable grief, with Rick fumbling for meaning as he (and the audience) struggles to hear what people are saying to him, or what their intentions might be.

The downside to this technical brilliance is it’s as boring as listening to someone tell you their dreams, as Rick drifts aimlessly through the story (the occasional respite comes courtesy of the comically gnomic voiceover, which offers titbits such as, “You never really wanted to be inside our marriage, or outside it either”).

It’s beautiful to look at, but the tone of pitying self-absorption quickly grows unseemly and ultimately wearying.

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