Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson
Film Review by Colin Lomas
Films about wealthy aristocratic ladies persuaded by sycophantic devotees that their cat-wailing squawks are the blessed tones of angels are like London buses at the moment; you wait patiently for thirty years then you get a Marguerite and a Florence Foster Jenkins both at once. Like Marguerite, Frears’ film is based on the story of forties New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins. That two films have been made about the same person in the space of less than a year is a little mystifying, although Marguerite’s French dialogue is unlikely to trouble the American multiplexes too much.
Florence Foster Jenkins tells the story of a music loving wealthy socialite (Streep) in New York convinced, mainly by her husband St Clair Bayfield (Grant) and a multitude of remunerated associates, that she has the perfect singing voice. The truth is that Jenkins is an utterly terrible singer but, with the art critics of all the New York newspapers on the pay-roll, she is absolutely convinced to the contrary. A performance by a brilliant new emerging singer in New York convinces Jenkins to resume singing lessons and she employs young pianist Cosme McMoon (Helberg) to accompany her on her journey to her dream of a concert at Carnegie Hall.
Any costume or set designer who can’t make the glorious art-deco of wartime New York look spectacular would rapidly end up working as Robbie Savage’s shirt advisor on Match of the Day, and Jenkins is no exception. The cars, the buildings and costumes are all wonderfully detailed and evoke a fabulous misplaced nostalgia of place and time never visited.
Grant gives one of his better performances, playing the multi-persona Bayfield with ease. His stoic devotion to Jenkins is obvious and sweet, but his secret fun-loving drinking side with girlfriend Kathleen (Ferguson) exhibits a depth somewhat missing in many of Grant’s bumbling public school performances. Given Streep is a classically trained Broadway singer, she matches Jenkin’s off-key singing perfectly, a feat not easy to pull off against the primal instinct to hit the right note. During the end credits, there is a recording of Jenkins singing and the likeness in tone and pitch Streep achieves is incredible. It’s eager pianist McMoon’s role in the film however that makes Florence Foster Jenkins tick. The audience is introduced alongside McMoon and experiences the same disbelief and surprise as dual newcomers to the bizarre fantasy Bayfield has created around Jenkins.
Florence Foster Jenkins is mostly subtle in the emotive accounts of its characters but can’t help throwing in the occasional truck-driver’s gear-change of sentimentality. The single tear trickling down Streep’s face as the radio sadly announces a soldier missing in action before kicking into Brahms’ Lullaby is like a punch to the face of restraint.
Florence Foster Jenkins achieves what it sets out to prove without too much effort or risk. Solid performances, a sharp script and nicely paced narrative helps the film gloss over its slushiness and lack of gravity. It never bores but then it never really stimulates either.
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