Director: Stephen Frears Writer: Nicholas Martin
Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Helberg, David Haig
110min | Drama | UK
Meryl Streep plays celebrity croaker Florence Foster Jenkins in this chipper tragicomedy about an heiress who financed herself to operatic stardom in 1940s New York.
In common with its real life diva, Stephen Frears’ sentimental celebration of amateur light operatics hits a few bum notes but mostly stays in tune with its central characters; a circle of ageing aficionados, wannabes and has-beens who thrived on puff and tea parties in New York, while ordinary people were fighting the Second World War. Ridiculed for her lack of rhythm, poor pitch and tone deafness, Meryl Streep’s Florence is also bald and riddled with tertiary syphilis thanks to her first husband Dr Jenkins, whom she describes as an alley-cat.
The film opens in her opulent apartment in 1944, with Florence in the happier days of her dotage fawned over by an adoring second husband and manager, failed actor St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), living secretly with his lover (Rebecca Ferguson) in a nearby Brooklyn Brownstone, paid for by his wife. So everything about Foster’s life was fake and yet, naively or narcissistically (and it feels very much like the former with Streep’s sincere treatment) she constructed her own romantic fantasy, perpetuated by disillusion or delusion, and funded by her vast inheritance. Frears’ film is very much an intimate and stagey chamber piece with the occasional foray into the locale (Victorian Liverpool and London). Clever use is made of special effects to achieve the Manhattan backdrop of Carnegie Hall and The Verdi Club, where Florence’s wealthy musical aficionados and luminaries- including Arturo Toscanini – gathered for their tea dances and soirées.
A light-hearted French version of the story Marguerite, transposed her story to 1920s Paris but lacks the emotional arc of Frears’ drama which feels convincing and surprisingly moving with its world class performances from Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep and an eloquently witty script by Nicholas Martin, a writer best known for his prodigious TV work.
So protected from the coal face of criticism courtesy of Bayfield, Florence decides to venture out into the public domain, hiring a talented young pianist Cosmé McMoon (The Big Bang Theory regular Simon Helberg) as her accompanist. After hearing a rousing tribute on the radio, she dedicates the concert to U.S. soldiers recently returned from the war and offers them free tickets. But despite support from her regular fans, and the sympathetic soldiers, press reaction is derisory and ultimately detrimental and Florence sadly suffers a setback.
With her unflattering wig and portly padding – Meryl Streep is a dead ringer for Tintin’s Madame Castefiore. Judiciously, we don’t hear her sing until the second act – allowing Frears and Martin to set the scene and develop the emotional dynamic between the central characters. Although this is a light-hearted role for Streep she delivers it with affection and aplomb managing to be vulnerable and ridiculous at the same time. Hugh Grant is impressive in his first ‘senior’ role swinging into his suave persona with spectacular ease in every scene and evoking a genuinely- felt affection for his wife in each loving gesture while masterfully managing her detractors – he even takes to the dancefloor. But the film’s real discovery is Simon Helberg, whose intricate facial gestures echo every subtle nuance of its tortured inner monologue from anxiety to rank disbelief, while verbally remaining delicately aloof and discrete. Florence Foster Jenkins is an enjoyable romp rather than an elaborate exposé of its eccentric heroine. The film will certainly go down well with the mainstream crowd but may be lost on younger audiences or the more aspiring arthouse crowd. MT
OUT NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE