Florence Foster Jenkins

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Stephen Frears

Starring

Hugh Grant Meryl Streep Simon Helberg

Anticipation.

Stephen Frears has been off the boil for some time, but that cast…

Enjoyment.

A great Grant can salvage this from insipid lightness.

In Retrospect.

Must remember to watch Marguerite again.

Stephen Frears parlays the fascinating story of this warbling songbird into a cosy, featherlight comedy.

A story so fascinating they filmed it twice! Xavier Giannoli’s recently released film Marguerite offered the fictional tale of a 1920s society heiress and patron of the arts whose toadying entourage refused to quash her dreams of stardom by admitting that she could not sing for toffee.

This new film by Stephen Frears is the tale of the real Florence Foster Jenkins (played by Meryl Streep), a syphilitic dowager whose status as a vaunted classical songbird ensured that the New York cultural cognoscenti were able to thrive. Knowing that she was loved is what enabled her to plunge her inherited fortune back into the business. In reality, she sounded like a mangy hound dog wailing in an alleyway, and engineering the white lie of her capabilities was her “husband”, the raffish ham actor St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant).

It’s a strange situation, particularly in that now we are able to log on to a social media platform and tell a star directly just how much we adore or despise their work. (Whether they’ll actually hear our calls through the din is another matter). Yet this stranger-than-fiction character seems like a ripe excuse for a film that questions the nature of talent, the ethics of arts funding, and how we should empathise with the tragic dupe at the centre of it all. Alas, what Frears offers is a feather-light, milky-tea treatment of the material, framing Jenkins as little more than a roly-poly grotesque. The film is as simplistic as functional as its title would suggest.

The penny is allowed to drop unforgivably early as the joke of Jenkins’ ear-bothering warble (amazingly rendered by Streep) is revealed within the film’s opening act. The scene sees Jenkins inducting a new piano accompanist (Simon Helberg’s pretentious dweeb, Cosme McMoon) who discovers that his lucky break has come with some giant caveats. As informed by Bayfield, to retain his position, he must be in on the big deceit and never allow the reality of his paymaster’s lack of talent to become known. As written by Nicholas Martin, it all comes across as a quaint stage farce where we’re the audience waits for everything to go wrong.

Underwhelming though it may be, the film isn’t a complete write-off. And that is largely down to the superb performance by Grant, an expertly stirred and shaken cocktail of self-interest, self-loathing and grudging empathy. He claims that his love of wife Florence is real, even though her ill health precludes any kind of physical consummation. She is more like a spoiled child – he reads her a story before bedtime and, once she’s down, he’ll slip out the door to consort with his real lover, Kathleen (the great Rebecca Ferguson who is given absolutely nothing to do).

This feels like a very sad story that’s been reconfigured to feel buoyant and charming. We’re invited to point and laugh at Jenkins. Even her demise is treated as a garish joke, as we see her as an angel in heaven, finally able to sing to her heart’s content, and without judgement.

Published 4 May 2016

Tags: Hugh Grant Meryl Streep

Anticipation.

Stephen Frears has been off the boil for some time, but that cast…

Enjoyment.

A great Grant can salvage this from insipid lightness.

In Retrospect.

Must remember to watch Marguerite again.

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