Friday, May 18, 2018

Distorting the facts

Back in 2015 I wrote about the play, Souvenir, which focused on the performances and life of
Florence Foster Jenkins. In 2016, Meryl Streep starred in a movie about the same person, which we saw around the time it came out, and then watched it again on Netflix last night.

I remember feeling somewhat disappointed in the movie, which also stars Hugh Grant as her husband, and Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon, the pianist who accompanied her in her later years. 

Not only do we discover that her husband, adoring of her, and deeply in love with her, also had an apartment (paid for by Jenkins) where he kept his 'girlfriend.' In fact, he and Jenkins were never officially married: Jenkins may not have been divorced from her first husband, the one who gave her syphilis. 

A number of things in the movie are based on fact, but equally there are curious distortions. Hugh Grant's character, St Clair Bayfield, is seen as a failed and fairly amateur actor. In fact, he had a long career in the theatre, and was plainly able to act much better than is shown in the movie. 

It's hinted fairly strongly in the movie that McMoon is gay, though this may not have been the case. Helberg camps the character up with constant simpers, quirky looks, and a generally effeminate air. I much preferred the down-to-earth version of Cosmé that appeared in the theatre production. 

Meryl Streep, as always, is brilliant, performing the awful singing with ease (presuming it is her voice, as Helberg seems to indicate in an interview), and she creates a character who is seemingly unaware of her awfulness while being wonderfully generous to those around her - and plainly needing all the love that she can get. 

In the last week we also watched The Imitation Game, supposedly a story about Alan Turing and the breaking of the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, and supposedly based on true events. Yes, there are a few true things scattered about, some actual persons portrayed, but for the most part this is a script based on the idea that it's good to wrap propaganda up in dramatic form, using fine actors to play the main parts and then forget about whether it actually connects with substantiated history. 

Thus Turing's difference (both his homosexuality and his genius) is made a basis for a theme about not bullying people who are different (though Turing is portrayed as even more of an arrogant bully in some scenes, as a man with no regard for the concerns of others). The feminist angle comes in by warping the history of highly skilled person, Joan Clarke, proving, for the feminists, that women can be just as clever as men. In fact more clever, because she solves the crossword in six minutes instead of the required eight. The fact that she was already at Bletchley before Turing arrived is ignored. 

(The same sort of approach was taken with Hidden Figures in which the black women were treated in the movie as astonishing the male characters - all white, of course. This doesn't align with the facts that appear in the book the movie was made from. But it pleased the female audiences, who cheered at the men being 'put in their place' when we saw it at the movies.)

Cumberbatch adds another of his people-don't-understand-me performances to his CV (it's frequently on a par with his arrogant Sherlock Holmes) and while it's been highly regarded in some circles, he presents a character who isn't any easier to warm to than Holmes was. Quite honestly, when Keira Knightly slaps him, you think, About time


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