Florence Foster Jenkins, 2016.
Directed by Stephen Frears.
Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg and Rebecca Ferguson.
The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.
Are we to laugh with, or laugh at Florence Foster Jenkins, a question proposed and rather crudely dismantled in the aptly titled Florence Foster Jenkins. Somewhere deep beneath the saccharin, tooth-achingly sweet exterior, there’s an interesting study of sadness of which director Stephen Frears struggles to locate. Instead, we have a charming, if breezy tale of musical delusion.
Meryl Streep stars as the titular Florence, a patron of the arts with delusional dreams of being a great soprano, an issue her entourage, filled with the most vanilla of the aristocratic bourgeoisie, refuse to acknowledge. Enabling her lies is St Clair Bayfield – played with aplomb by Hugh Grant – and the skittish Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg).
Never one to turn down a challenge – try sitting through The Iron Lady, a film weighed down with an astonishing mound of bullshit pomposity-there’s a certain joy in watching Streep almost relax into a role. She errs between playing Florence as an almost over-excited schoolgirl and a woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders. As a result of this, it’s on Hugh Grant, who gives his most coherent and purely enjoyable performance in years, seemingly fulfilling his dreams of being a great star of the golden age. Yet it’s Simon Helberg, who away from the grotesque stereotypes of The Big Bang Theory, finds himself a revelation, nailing every punch line, one-liner and comic fall.Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
Poor Rebecca Ferguson, who after a series of superb performances, finds herself with nothing to do but dote around Hugh Grant and sporadically appear on-screen as if purely an expositional device.
Tonally, the film has more in common with the great screwball comedies of the 40’s than that of Marguerite-a far superior, if highly fictionalized take on the life of Jenkins. Far too early on, we are invited into her inner-circle, and implored to laugh at, not with her. Screenwriter Nicholas Martin, although finding genuine laughs in potato salad and antique chairs, struggles to find solidarity between the broadest comedy sequences and the far more interesting moments of quiet drama.
Yet after all this, it’s entirely uncynical. Frears, an adept, if incredibly safe director, plays into the hands of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel audience. Risks are few and far between, conflict is all but absent and the film is played lip-smackingly sentimental.
As a result of its breezy attitude, moments of drama lack the gut-punch they rightfully deserve. Early on its revealed Jenkins has lived with Syphilis for almost 50 years. The shock comes less from the discovery, more in the reveal of Streep’s lack of hair.
It’s a shame, there’s a tragic story somewhere in Florence Foster Jenkins, but director Frears finds comfort in playing the film as breezy and charmingly uncynical. I for one rather enjoyed her company.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★