Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Stephen Frears
Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Nina Ariadna, Rebecca Ferguson, David Haig, John Sessions.
We recently saw the French art house film Marguerite, which was a fictional take on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy New York socialite and patron of the arts who was widely regarded as the world’s worst singer. Now we get the true story of Jenkins, although first time feature writer Nicholas Martin (a successful tv writer whose credits include Midsomer Murders, The Bill, etc) takes some liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes.
Jenkins (played her by Meryl Streep) was a wealthy socialite with a love of opera, but she was delusional about her talents. She aspired to be an opera singer herself, despite her tone deaf and off key singing voice. Jenkins’ husband St Clair Bayfield (played with aplomb by Hugh Grant) was very supportive of her passion, but did his best to shelter her from the truth about her lack of talent. He even bribed some critics to write positive reviews.
St Clair was a failed Shakespearean actor and although he was aware of her vocal shortcomings he was happy enough to encourage and finance Jenkins’ variety show performances. Her live performances were basically limited to an exclusive and supportive small audience at the Verdi Club in New York. The couple also had a very unusual marriage. An early bout of syphilis had left Jenkins unable to have children, and so she was understanding of her husband’s needs for female companionship. He spent much of his time in his own downtown apartment he shared with his mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson, largely wasted).
But when a recording of one of her performances accidentally hits the airwaves, she becomes popular and an item of cultural curiosity, particularly amongst serving soldiers. After years of supporting various musical performances, Jenkins decides that it was time to make her own stage debut at Carnegie Hall. St Clair bribed noted Metropolitan Opera conductor Carlo Edwards (David Haig) to become Florence’s vocal coach and ready her for her big performance. He also hired the improbably named and effeminate pianist Cosme McMoon (played by The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg) to accompany her. McMoon feared for his own reputation while playing for Jenkins in her few private performances.
Jenkins gave her one and only public performance at Carnegie Hall in 1944, shortly before her death. St Clair would protect Florence from the scathing, negative reviews her performance attracted, even to the extent of buying up all newspapers in the vicinity. Ironically, the recording of her disastrous Carnegie Hall appearance has become one of the most sought after in that institution’s archives.
The director is Stephen Frears who has established a great and diverse body of work that ranges from the gay-themed romance of My Beautiful Laundrette through to period dramas like Dangerous Liaisons to comedies like High Fidelity and westerns like The Hi-Lo Country, through to the gritty Scorsese-like crime drama The Grifters and more recently dramas like The Program. Some of his best works though are true stories about strong real life women, from The Queen to Philomena. It is hard to point to any particular film in his canon and say that this is a distinctively individual Stephen Frears film though, as he lacks those idiosyncratic touches that are often a stamp of a filmmaker’s personality.
Nonetheless he handles the material in his usual accomplished style and he maintains a nice balance between the farcical and the sentimental. But essentially Frears plays it safe here, and the film lacks flair or edge.
The film also looks like it was made in the 40s, with Alan Macdonald’s production design, Consolata Boyle’s costumes, Danny Cohen’s cinematography and solid technical contributions capturing the flavour of the era. The film was shot on the sound stages at London’s Pinewood Studios, which makes its atmospheric and realistic recreation of New York circa the 1940s quite impressive.
The incomparable Streep can do little wrong and it’s little wonder that she is still in demand for high profile roles at an age when most other actresses find work drying up. She is superb as Jenkins, and is also quite amusing at times. She clearly has a ball as she plays up Jenkins’ vanity and clueless attitude towards her own tortured singing voice. But it is a fairly sympathetic performance also. And for Streep, who has exercised her vocal chords in Mamma Mia! and Ricki And The Flash, it must be hard to deliberately sing so horribly out of tune here, but she nails it beautifully. Some of those scenes where she sings wonderfully out of tune elicited guffaws of laughter from the audience.
In a role that is a far cry from his nerdish character on the popular tv sitcom, Helberg effortlessly steals scenes here. He is a hoot as Cosme, and the range of horrified expressions that play across his face the first time he hears Jenkins sing is priceless. And this is one of Grant’s best roles for quite some time and, cast against type, he delivers an unaffected and charming performance. Nina Ariadna makes the most of her small role as a buxom, gold digging starlet who becomes an unlikely champion of Jenkins.
Florence Foster Jenkins is a crowd pleaser that will appeal to the same older demographic who enjoyed solid British dramas like The Queen, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The King’s Speech, etc. Although it will inevitably be compared with the French film Marguerite, nonetheless this is an enjoyable enough romp in its own right.