Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson
Gosh it must be fun to be Meryl Streep. The most celebrated screen actress alive has reached a point in her career where she can seemingly do whatever she wants. Not one to take herself too seriously, she appears to pick whatever projects look like fun while still producing top notch work. She has shown us she can sing with Mamma Mia!, Into the Woods and Ricki and the Flash, and now, with Florence Foster Jenkins, she has shown us, when needed, she can also sing terribly.
When gifted young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) is hired to play accompaniment for heiress Florence Foster Jenkins’ (Meryl Streep) daily singing lessons, he has no idea what he has got himself into. A socialite and patron of the arts, Florence is a lover of music, who just happens to be the worst singer in the world. A beloved personality, the importance of her patronage to the musical community of New York during the difficult war years means that much of the musical elite are happy to humour her. She has caught the performance bug and her husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) works overtime to protect her, keeping tight control over the tickets to her shows to keep the mockers and scoffers at bay. However, when a recording of her singing manages to find its way onto the radio it becomes a sensation and Florence is emboldened to hire out Carnegie Hall and make tickets available to the public.
Based on a true story, this could very easily have just been a one joke film, but director Stephen Frears manages to find something more. Florence Foster Jenkins isn’t so much a film about a truly terrible singer as it is about the people who love her, stand alongside her and seek to protect her from ridicule. And we as the audience quickly find ourselves counted among those people. The film has an incredible affection for its titular character, and because Florence is so earnest, we are almost instantly on her side. So while we laugh at her singing, as soon as we hear other characters do so we instantly get defensive. It is the same relationship that allows you to make fun of your own family but bristle when someone else dares to.
Streep has a whale of the time playing Florence. While it is not her most demanding of performances, learning to sing that badly when you can hold a tune is a skill in itself. Florence is larger than life, comically over the top, so it falls to Streep’s co-stars to make us believe her, and to ground the film and give it emotional depth. As Cosme, Simon Helberg (best known for his role in The Big Bang Theory) is the audience surrogate. He is the one who sees the world as we do. In the wonderfully executed reveal of Florence’s terrible singing voice, Cosme finds himself seemingly the only person in the rehearsal room who is aware that she sounds horrible. And so it is he that goes on the journey from horror to admiration.
It is Grant though who gives the most impressive performance, for his is the character most at risk of getting the audience offside. Early in the film it is revealed that St Clair is leading a double life, spending the daytime supporting and tending to Florence, and then of an evening returning to his own apartment where he lives with his girlfriend. There are certain revelations about Florence’s health and the suggestion that Florence, while never speaking of it, is aware of St Clair’s arrangement, but ultimately it is Grant’s wonderfully layered performance, one of the more impressive of his career, that redeems this character and draws us to him. He presents St Clair as a complex individual in a unique situation, making us understand his affair while never for a second doubting his genuine loving devotion to Florence. We see the lengths he goes to to protect her, carefully controlling the tickets to her small concerts and bribing the critics to give positive notices, and then the steadfastness with which he stands alongside her at Carnegie Hall when he can no longer protect her. Grant’s performance plays a major role in bringing depth and sincerity to this potentially trivial tale.
Florence Foster Jenkins is ultimately a modest bit of good-humoured fun for the ‘Best Exotic Marigold’ crowd. Light and enjoyable, it is a story of devotion, loyalty, and, above all, the love of music.
Review by Duncan McLean
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