Title: Florence Foster Jenkins
Director: Stephen Frears
Major Players: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg
Out Of Five: 3.5
You wait what seems forever for a film about a woman who was famous for singing off-key and then two come along in the space of about a month.
The first was the fictitious Marguerite, an account based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins and focusing on a wealthy French woman. Now we have the film that bears Foster Jenkins’ name, although it’s not a bio-pic, more a dramatized version of her life.
American socialite, Florence (Meryl Streep) nursed a deeply held ambition to sing opera in front of an audience yet, despite tuition from some of the most eminent teachers in New York, her singing voice was flat and she couldn’t get near a high note. But, with the support of her husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and her accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg) she releases a record and gives a recital for the benefit of the American forces. Which is when she learns the truth about herself.
The recordings still exist, the most notoriously dreadful being her version of Mozart’s Queen Of the Night. The high notes are like fingernails down a blackboard. Until a few weeks ago, whether you knew or not why she was famous would have been down to your age, but the publicity campaign for the film has changed that. Strangely, neither director Stephen Frears nor his writer, Nicholas Martin, appear to have seen it coming, because they’ve taken the conventional route of making us wait a good half hour into the film until we hear Florence sing for the first time. But the marketing guys have robbed the moment of its impact. Instead, you find yourself wondering if Streep can do her voice justice: we know she can sing from the likes of A Prairie Home Companion, Mama Mia and Into The Woods. Here, it’s as if she tries too hard at times to be off key and she sometimes look uncomfortable doing it.
Like Marguerite, it’s a one joke story. But, unlike its French counterpart, it is designed to be something closer to a heartwarming comedy. The laughs produced by her lack of vocal talent soon dry up, but watching her interactions with others, and their response to her singing, are a continuous source of humour. There’s the pretentious nonsense and ridiculous posturing of her singing coach, Carlo Edwards (David Haig) who puts her through all kinds of ludicrous exercises so she believes she can sing. And the first reactions of accompanist, Cosme McMoon, when he realises who – and what – he’ll be playing for, firstly at her lessons and then later at her concerts. The owner of Carnegie Hall, where she holds her famous recital for the troops – Allan Corduner, a long way from Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy, even if he is still on musical territory – is downright horrified.
Her performance in front of the audience of servicemen makes for a fitting and moving climax. Until now, Florence has only performed to small audiences in salons and they are mostly – not all – polite enough not to laugh. The servicemen aren’t, nor are they sober. The shattered look on Streep’s face as she hears the wails of laughter turns her into something as fragile as a piece of tissue paper, likely to crumple at any moment. It’s a lump-in-the-throat moment, with the crowd turned around by the person you’d least expect and, while it’s a touch too sentimental, it still works.
It’s almost too easy to expect Streep to be her usual excellent self as Florence, but she is, and Hugh Grant rises to the challenge of acting with her and is surprisingly good. But the real scene stealer is Simon Helberg, perfectly cast as McMoon and a joy in the comedy scenes. For the majority of the film, he’s almost permanently on the brink of bursting out laughing – and does so occasionally – with a giggle bubbling away under the surface. There’s a nicely subtle shift near the end of the film, when what’s bubbling away underneath are tears. He’s slight, walks very strangely and the revelation at the end of the film that, after being Florence’s pianist, he took an interest in body building gets one of the biggest laughs of the lot. Anybody less like a body builder is hard to imagine.
Stephen Frears is back on his favourite territory. After taking to the cycle track with The Program, he’s back with a story about a strong, older woman – think The Queen, Philomena – and one that mixes humour and pathos with warmth and affection. What it doesn’t give us is enough insight into Florence herself, not so much the reasons behind her devotion to music but why she actually believed she could sing. By the end of the film, it’s still a mystery.
Incidentally, these were a nice little promotional gift, but I didn’t actually need to use them …..
Florence Foster Jenkins is released in cinemas on Friday, 6 May and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 5 May.