A Hollywood companion piece to Marguerite, Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins finds a heart of gold beneath the tarnished voice.
The Singerby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It could have triggered sniggering but instead it’s charming. Stephen Frears (most recently the director of The Program and Philomena) has turned the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the deluded New York heiress who thought she could sing, into a poignant film about the unlikely triumph of the human spirit.
Meryl Streep is Jenkins and we see her first descending to a tiny stage on wires dressed as a rather matronly angel, in the first of a series of exotic costumes, in a tableau narrated by her husband and manager, failed actor St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). There is even now a bursary in Bayfield’s name at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. So far so ludicrous, but Frears saves the revelation of her ear-splitting singing until later in the film, when its full impact can be conveyed through the incredulous reactions of her newly employed accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg from The Big Bang Theory in a finely judged comic turn).
Set in the 1940s, the period detail is exact and convincing. Moving in wealthy society circles, with high-level musical contacts such as the acclaimed conductor Toscanini and the composer Cole Porter, Jenkins was able to sing at private gatherings where audiences were too polite to point out the horrible reality of her operatic coleratura warblings. Bayfield heroically monitors and suppresses any potential criticism. It is not until Jenkins vaingloriously books Carnegie Hall to give a solo concert and it’s open to the public – and to critics from the press – that she realises she’s a figure of fun.
Central to the film is the unwitting comedy of Jenkins’ performances and Streep recreates them superbly. Yet Jenkins never becomes just the butt of a joke as we see too the pathos of her life – her poor health because of syphilis caught from her first husband, lonely and dependent on the affection of Bayfield. In one of his best screen peformances, Grant plays the ageing English gentleman to perfection – urbane, polished and manipulative. And yet, although it is open to conjecture as to whether he was exploiting her for her wealth, the film presents his love for her as genuine and lasting over many years, despite the strange arrangement of his living with another woman (Rebecca Ferguson, soon to be seen in The Girl On The Train), rather than with Jenkins in her hotel suite. The tenderness of Jenkins’ and Bayfield’s relationship is very touching.
Jenkins’s deep love of music rather than her ego was her driving force in all she did, and this is expressed in an unexpectedly moving scene where she shares a piano to play Chopin with her nervous accompanist. Helberg, as McMoon, is a lovable character whose comic journey takes him from his initial appalled horror to compassion and finally protectiveness of Jenkins. This mirrors the emotional arc of the film, which focuses on the weeks leading up to Jenkins’ final concert, her preparations, the eventual sympathetic humanity of the audience, contrasted with the cruel spotlight of the outside world and its tragic consquences for her. Though the ending is tragic, the tone until then is feelgood.
Florence Foster Jenkins is released on 6th May 2016 in the UK