Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson
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Director Stephen Frears appears to be on something of a streak when it comes to making films based on true stories – his last three films were all drawn from real life events and so it proves with his latest feature, Florence Foster Jenkins. In dramatising the story of Jenkins’ delusional would-be diva, Frears and scriptwriter Nicholas Martin strike an intriguing balance between pathos and farce, while shrewdly withholding judgement on their central figure.
Set in 1944 Manhattan, the film stars Meryl Streep as Florence, a wealthy patron of the arts who harbours dreams of becoming an opera singer, but is apparently unaware of her uniquely terrible singing voice. Her indulgent husband, former failed British stage actor St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), arranges for her to perform regular concerts to private, members-only groups, with audience members drawn from general sycophants and those who depend upon Florence’s patronage.
However, after a recording of her singing becomes an unexpected best-seller (audiences back then, it seems, had a sophisticated grasp of irony), Florence announces her intention to play a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, sending Bayfield into a panic. Fearing that she’ll be exposed to damaging public humiliation, Bayfield does everything in his power to protect Florence, including bribing Metropolitan Opera conductor Carlo Edwards (David Haig) to act as her vocal coach, and hiring bewildered young pianist Cosme McMoon (Helberg, from TV’s The Big Bang Theory) as her accompanist.
Streep is on terrific form, delivering a finely-tuned comic performance that generates sympathy and laughs in equal measure, while tantalisingly offering no clue as to exactly how self-aware Florence might be – indeed, part of the fun of the film involves scouring Streep’s gestures, glances and flickers of facial expression for a hint in that direction.
Grant, for his part, is every bit Streep’s equal, finding touching levels of empathy and understanding in Bayfield, while hinting at his own complex emotional make-up, as the private details of their marriage are revealed. He’s also a dab hand at wringing big laughs from wry facial expressions, although Frears also affords him a delightful physical comic set-piece of his own, when Bayfield indulges in some hand-wavy jazz-dancing and cuts quite the dash in the process.
By contrast, Helberg’s character seems rather underwritten, despite his inexplicably prominent placing in the film’s publicity material. After Cosme’s initial comic reaction to his first exposure to Florence, the actor has little of substance left to do and his performance feels increasingly blank as a result – it’s also hard to care too much about his supposed fears of ridicule on stage, when there’s much more at stake for Florence.
On the surface, it seems like the film occasionally threatens to become something of a one-joke movie. Indeed, it peaks early in that respect, with the full reveal of Florence’s awfulness occurring soon after the film begins. However, that early reveal actually serves an intriguing dramatic purpose, ensuring that the audience are (hopefully) on Florence’s side by the time of the big concert, waiting anxiously along with Bayfield for someone to shatter the illusion and reveal that the Emperor has no clothes.
Ultimately, this a likeable comedy-slash-biopic that paints a touching portrait of a central relationship and says something interesting about the nature of artistic performance. For a different take on the same subject, be sure to check out Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite, which transposes Florence’s story to 1920s France.
Florence Foster Jenkins is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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