A film based on the ‘worst singer in the world’ may sound tasteless and unsympathetic. Florence Foster Jenkins is perhaps initially slightly the latter but this is far too clever to offer audiences nearly two hours of dense mickey-taking. Director Stephen Frears hasn’t delivered anything close to previous award-winning efforts The Queen and Philomena, but again features a cracking, on-point leading lady. This is a touching, uncomplicated and dominantly silly film that doesn’t shy away from being forthright.
New York, 1944 plays host to an unconventional concert at Carnegie Hall. Florence Foster Jenkins, wealthy socialite and lover of music, manages to perform a solo show, with the aid of pianist Cosme McMoon, to a sell-out audience. Unfortunately Jenkins’s vocal talents leave a lot to be desired. There's tragedy in the fact that this woman was so heavily deluded, both by herself and those around her, that she managed to find herself in such a position. At the same time, is it not admirable that Jenkins had a dream and, regardless of talent, realised it? This often feels like a party of uncomfortable, conflicting thoughts and feelings. We are tortured by the horror of this delusion but conversely, feel zero ill feeling towards those that pulled the wool over her eyes, so to speak. Florence Foster Jenkins toys with inspiring, albeit cringe-worthy moments, and rarely flies away from its humorous tone.
Opposite Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant has his first starring role in what feels like decades. The ‘chief deluder’ in the Jenkins machine, he plays St Clair Bayfield with a delightful abundance of satire and affection. It’s a joy to see him play this role and even more to see some quite special dance moves. The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg journeys quite a way from an incredulous, creepy, money-grabber to a member of Jenkins’s warm family, while Nina Arianda is delightful as the brash, loud-mouthed Agnes Stark: an actress to look out for.
Streep completely captures Jenkins. Never without full reason, she is needy, sensitive and fiercely protective over those she cares for. She is also frighteningly decisive. It could be very easy to laugh at this character, but unsurprisingly, much explanation and depth is given to Jenkins and ultimately the film is heart-warming, though never exceptional.
Another take on the amateur singer’s story can be found in Marguerite, also released this year. If Florence Foster Jenkins feels perhaps too simplified and fluffy, try this – Catherine Frot’s aria of ‘Queen of the Night’ alone is delivered in a much darker and more powerful way.
Words by Samuel Sims