Florence Foster Jenkins is screening from 8th – 14th July
For the second time this year, ‘legendary’ opera singer and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins’ life is the subject of a major feature film. French movie Marguerite was not a straight biopic, more a loosely inspired standalone film – though a rather good one. So I was especially curious to see how its British counterpart, starring Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep, would turn out in comparison.
I said Foster Jenkins is ‘legendary’ – perhaps infamous may be a better word, but I hesitate to use it because people did actually like her. Basically, though she knew music – classical opera specifically – she couldn’t sing, and her close friends and family didn’t have the heart to tell her so. Nor did she have an ear for her own voice. She couldn’t hit a right note to save her life but thought she was brilliant.
It was her personality that made her endearing, and Meryl Streep does a brilliant job playing the title character in this film. Get it wrong and her ‘thinking she’s good when she’s really not’ outlook would have been at best annoying, at worst infuriating.
Despite her vocal shortcomings, you fall in love with the character during the movie, and this is testament to Streep’s acting ability. Few, if any, could have played the role better. Those who knew Foster Jenkins personally – and as the audience we do get to this stage over the course of the film – come to feel for her what she imagines her audience are feeling when she sings to them.
Hugh Grant plays her romantic partner St. Clair Bayfield, and I’d daresay it’s his best role; certainly the most interesting one I’ve seen him play. Bayfield himself appears a complicated character; despite being closely involved with Jenkins (throughout the movie we see just how entwined they are) he lives separately from her and has a girlfriend. But somehow you do not dislike him; as the film progresses you learn why they share such a convoluted lifestyle and it’s actually quite heartbreaking. Not many movies come close to making me cry (only Inside Out managed it last year); Florence Foster Jenkins almost succeeded. Consider that a huge mark in its favour.
Simon Helberg also stars in a comedic role; he brings an uplifting air to the story. Irish actor John Kavanaghplays Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, who coaches Florence and keeps her spirits high, making her feel like a professional. His may just be the most underrated performance of the film.
This movie is heart-warming and hilarious in equal measure. On the side it also offers an interesting take on the critic/ artist divide. Are Florence’s friends and family correct in keeping the truth from her? That’s a question I found myself pondering.
Were it later in the year, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant would surely both be certainties for Oscar nominations in 2017, and they may deservedly still be in the minds of the Academy in seven months time. Not that I care much about that part at the moment; rather, Florence Foster Jenkins is a film worth seeing and appreciating now.
Set against the backdrop of World War II, Florence Foster Jenkins tells the story of a New York socialite whose passion for opera sees her take to the stage at Carnegie Hall. It’s an once-in-a-lifetime performance, but there’s one small problem – Florence is a terrible singer.
On paper, we shouldn’t like Florence at all. A rich socialite who uses her wealth and connections to shoehorn herself into Carnegie Hall doesn’t exactly suggest inclusivity. Florence’s story is, at first glance, a triumph of mediocrity over common sense. She doesn’t just sound a bit ropey, and it’s not a matter of taste – Florence Foster Jenkins absolutely, categorically, cannot sing. But what Florence does have, is a real affinity for music, and it’s impossible not to be won over by her boundless enthusiasm. Foster Jenkins is a one-woman charm offensive, and director Stephen Frears celebrates this in a film that positively sparkles.
Meryl Streep does a phenomenal job of portraying Foster Jenkins, creating a performance that not only hits the high notes in the comedic scenes, but is beautifully nuanced, just what you would expect from Streep.
While we know that Meryl is pretty much game for anything (it’s hard to imagine another A-lister who would be so comfortable, screeching and swooping like a dying hawk), this film sees Hugh Grant give the performance of his career.
As Florence’s husband, St Clair Bayfield, Grant deploys his trademark charm to optimum effect. But Bayfield doesn’t just manage Florence’s career; he orchestrates it from the ground up. Newspaper critics are paid off; bad reviews are hidden – nothing is left to chance, and it’s all done to preserve Florence’s dignity. The lengths St Clair goes to are audacious, but they’re done with the very best of intentions.
Grant plays St Clair with great sympathy; Bayfield is a man living a very complicated life. Throughout the film, we are reminded of the importance of not taking people at face value. While no excuses are made for Bayfield, it would be churlish to pass judgement and Grant wisely declines from doing so.
A special mention has to go to Simon Helberg, best known for his role as Howard Wolowitz on U.S sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. Playing Cosme McMoon, the pianist hired to accompany Florence, Helberg’s mobile features are put to good use, as McMoon begins to comprehend the range of Florence’s talent. Helberg goes from incredulity to hysteria, in a comic performance that nearly steals the show.
Frears gives away his strongest hand early, allowing Cosme (and us) to see and hear Florence Foster Jenkins in all her glory. But Meryl’s robust performance is more than enough to carry the rest of the film. Streep doesn’t just play Jenkins for laughs; she really understands that at the heart of Florence Foster Jenkins is a woman whose life is dedicated to music. Her clamour for the stage is not about bolstering her ego, but sharing the joy she has for music with others. It’s testament to Meryl’s impeccable instincts that the laughter she evokes from us is never cruel. It would be very easy to mock Florence as a deluded, silly woman – but where’s the fun in that? Rather than excellence, Florence offered us commitment. Her desire to make music matter saw her risk her reputation and even her life.
What Florence Foster Jenkins teaches us is not how to strike a note, but why you should sing it in the first place. A terrifically funny film with a big heart, Florence Foster Jenkins sings not of perfection, but the joy of living – and it sounds absolutely glorious.