The American socialite and amateur operatic soprano Florence Foster Jenkins may have gained notoriety for her terrible singing, but she was unquestionably a lover of music, and extremely generous with her money during the early part of the 20th Century. Her patronage of musicians and concert venues in New York was appreciated by many, but taken advantage of all the same; yet it also enabled her to perform at some of the city’s prestigious venues, including Carnegie Hall. Live recordings of these concerts reveal that her style was a startling mixture of enthusiastic shrill shrieking and bum notes, while on some you can clearly hear the chortling of audience members; the few studio recordings that exist are not much better. This affectionate biographical comedy-drama by Stephen Frears – written by Nicholas Martin – is an account of Foster Jenkins’ later years on stage, first in musical theatre and then as a singer (it’s the second film in the past few months to be inspired by Florence’s life, the other being the French drama Margeurite, which reimagined her as a performer in Paris). Here Meryl Streep plays the titular warbler, with Frears milking her wonky performances for laughs before ending on more touching, melancholy notes: this is a film that cares for its protagonist every bit as much as it makes fun of her follies, and Streep walks the line between butt of the jokes and tragic heroine skillfully. I chuckled away during the scenes in which she sings out of key, especially as Frears includes numerous reaction shots of those around her, which range from deadpan refusals to acknowledge that anything’s wrong to people bent double with laughter; and I was also ever-so-slightly moved by the tender – if unconventional – relationship she has with husband and manager St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), as well as Florence’s own struggles with insecurity and illness.
As well as Grant – who does good work and amuses during a wild-eyed dance sequence – Streep is joined by The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg, who adds more laughs as Florence’s accompanying pianist Cosmé McMoon, his face constantly twitching as he tries to second guess the direction her voice will take next. McMoon starts out as an unemployed piano player and composer, and is grateful for the generous money Foster Jenkins pays him, but he’s understandably reticent when it comes to performing in public with the singer. As their relationship develops the pianist becomes more and more loyal, the character recognising Florence’s harmlessness and the need for someone to support her in front of an audience. The rest of the cast members – save perhaps for Bayfield’s mistress, played by Rebecca Ferguson – are incidental to the main story, though a couple add colour, such as Nina Arianda as a flirtatious woman married to a meatpacking magnate. There’s plenty of attention to period detail in terms of the interior sets, while Liverpool and neighbouring peninsula The Wirral serve as effective stand-ins for New York and its environs (and as a Wirral lad myself I can assure you I never thought I’d be typing such a thing, although Central Park’s landscape architect was influenced by the layout of Birkenhead Park on The Wirral; the producers of Florence Foster Jenkins missed a link there). The humour’s silly and gentle, while the comic performances are on the money, but I didn’t take to it as much as the older members of my cinema audience seemed to, or indeed in the same way that most newspaper critics in the UK have done. Funny and moving at times, though, which I guess is everything it’s intended to be.
Directed by: Stephen Frears.
Written by: Nicholas Martin.
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda.
Cinematography: Danny Cohen.
Editing: Valerio Bonelli.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Running Time: 110 minutes.