“Music is my life,” declares Florence Foster Jenkins in the latest biopic from director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena). Meryl Streep plays the eponymous New York socialite, a big name on the musical scene in 1940s Manhattan. Along with her husband and manager St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) she presents tableaux-vivants from famous musical scenes for her devoted and mainly octogenarian audience, but singing is her private passion. So much so that she takes it upon herself to have lessons and eventually give a gala performance at Carnegie Hall.
The problem is she can’t sing. Really can’t sing. There are lots of scenes which showcase her truly terrible vocals. It takes real skill to sing badly as convincingly as Streep manages. I did wonder whether perhaps the dearth of Florence’s vocal aptitude had been exaggerated for comedic effect. But no, it turns out there are recordings knocking around which are the real deal and she really was that ear-offending. Streep’s performance is in fact an uncanny impression of the lack of skill for tone, pitch, pronunciation and general talent that Florence possessed. In a refreshing twist the trailer gives very little away in terms of singing, making its effect a dreadfully delicious surprise – it really must be heard to be believed.
The film itself treats the Florence with love. Despite the ‘scoffers’ (a much better word than the modern equivalent: haters) of the New York scene we, along with her devoted – but possibly deaf – fans, are willing her to succeed. And there are some truly poignant moments, too. When one of her detractors gets through, we see the chinks in her armour. Her devoted husband (‘Whitey’ to her) shields her from the arrows of society, and especially from the music critic at the New York Post.
The two leads give fantastic performances, Streep once more confirming her chameleonic ability to play any part with panache. Grant gives a tender, intricate performance, with more depth than the posh, floppy-haired role he’s often typecast in. This is particularly impressive considering he is still playing a posh stereotype, it’s different. He’s in a happy marriage, he’s settled down. Grant’s latest incarnation offers a distinct maturity.
A surprising stand-out performance comes from Simon Helberg, ‘Wolowitz’ from The Big Bang Theory. He breaks free of the geek we know him as. Working as Florence’s accompanist, he plays Cosme McMoon – another of the film’s many amazing names. Full of camp nervous energy, he’s our eyes into the bizarre world of Florence’s world. His disbelief is ours too.
The titular character’s lack of singing talent shouldn’t put you off. The film is stacked with great music – operatic, classical and contemporary. We’re also treated to some fantastic dancing from Hugh Grant in one memorable scene. It paints a beautiful picture of 1940s New York. Despite being filmed in Liverpool, we’re placed right there and then amongst the smoke and yellow cabs.
The wandering narrative did feel a little listless at times. The side-plots of St. Clair and Cosme are never engaging, and only detract from Florence’s story. But this is a minor quibble to an otherwise laugh-out-loud film. As Grant points out to Florence, ‘Ours is a happy world’. In an age of cinema doom and gloom, with horror and disaster movies increasingly the norm, Florence Foster Jenkins will leave you feeling warm inside.