One for the trill-seek­ers David Strat­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Meryl Streep re­ally is a won­der. In the past decade her film roles have in­cluded that of an ar­biter of fash­ion ( The Devil Wears Prada), Ju­lia Child ( Julie & Ju­lia), Mar­garet Thatcher ( The Iron Lady), an evil witch ( Into the Woods), a rock singer ( Ricki and the Flash) and Em­me­line Pankhurst ( Suf­fragette). Now she crops up in the ti­tle role of Florence Foster Jenkins, the New York so­cialite who, in 1944, was de­scribed by critic Earl Wil­son of the New York Post as the worst singer in the world.

If that story sounds fa­mil­iar it’s prob­a­bly be­cause just a few weeks ago a French film ti­tled Mar­guerite opened in cine­mas telling a fic­tion­alised story of a wo­man very sim­i­lar to Jenkins; the French film, be­ing fic­ti­tious, was not bound to fol­low the facts and thus had more lee­way to em­bel­lish the ba­sic story. Di­rec­tor Stephen Frears, who is well used to bi­o­graph­i­cal sub­jects ( The Queen, Philom­ena, The Pro­gram) and screen­writer Ni­cholas Martin have no such lat­i­tude since they claim their film is “based on true events”, though, as we know, that sort of dec­la­ra­tion of­ten can be taken with a pinch of salt. And it turns out that the “true” story is just as strange as the fic­tional one.

As por­trayed by Streep, wear­ing lots of pad­ding un­der her vo­lu­mi­nous cos­tumes, Jenkins was an ex­tremely ec­cen­tric wo­man. Fab­u­lously wealthy and on friendly terms with celebri­ties rang­ing from Ar­turo Toscanini to Cole Porter, she lived in a suite in a Man­hat­tan ho­tel where she oc­ca­sion­ally hosted soirees for the Verdi Club, an or­gan­i­sa­tion she had es­tab­lished.

Her so­lic­i­tous hus­band, St Clair Bay­field (Hugh Grant in ex­cel­lent form), was an as­pir­ing ac­tor with a plummy Bri­tish ac­cent and, though he showed Florence the ut­most de­vo­tion, he would es­cape from her clutches at night to stay with his mistress, Kath­leen (Re­becca Fer­gu­son), in an apart­ment for which Florence paid the rent. From time to time, Florence — who fan­cied her­self a col­oratura so­prano — would per­form for her clos­est friends, some of whom, it seems, were deaf; and this was for­tu­nate be­cause the lady’s prow­ess as a singer was nonex­is­tent. To say that she was flat, or off-key, or shrill would be an un­der­state­ment. But the loyal St Clair did his best to keep the aw­ful truth from Florence, keep­ing po­ten­tial crit­ics away from her recitals. Un­til, that is, she be­comes de­ter­mined to sing at Carnegie Hall.

Jenkins was the op­po­site of Susan Boyle, who came from a work­ing-class back­ground and looked, on the sur­face, to be an un­likely Florence Foster Jenkins (PG) Na­tional re­lease Whiskey Tango Fox­trot (MA15+) Na­tional re­lease Harry & Snow­man (G) Lim­ited na­tional re­lease singer yet proved oth­er­wise. But there’s some­thing of the same fas­ci­na­tion for the off­beat in both women, and both found suc­cess — Foster’s Carnegie Hall con­cert sold out faster than Frank Si­na­tra’s and her record­ings re­main pop­u­lar de­spite their hideous­ness.

The film’s other prin­ci­pal char­ac­ter is that of Cosme McMoon (Si­mon Hel­berg), an awk­ward, gay pi­anist hired to ac­com­pany Florence. Well aware of his em­ployer’s in­ad­e­qua­cies, Cosme is yet un­able to tell her the truth, partly be­cause she’s pay­ing him a great deal of money and partly be­cause he doesn’t want to hurt her feel­ings. Hel­berg’s per­for­mance is man­nered and over the top but, then, the same could be said for the en­tire film.

It’s em­bar­rass­ing to laugh at poor, de­luded Florence but of course we do laugh while ad­mir­ing the panache, the sheer gusto with which Streep tack­les the role. If you love mu­sic, how­ever, this may not be the film for you. Kim Barker was a jour­nal­ist for the Chicago Tri­bune who was as­signed to cover the war in Afghanistan and who wrote a 2011 me­moir, The Tal­iban Shuf­fle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pak­istan, about her ex­pe­ri­ences. Her story has been fic­tion­alised in Whiskey Tango Fox­trot (in mil­i­tary jar­gon the phrase ap­par­ently stands for “What the f..k”) in which Barker has be­come Kim Baker and is now a television jour­nal­ist (a switch pre­sum­ably in­sti­tuted be­cause it was deemed more vis­ual). Tina Fey plays the char­ac­ter with con­vic­tion but the film, scripted by Robert Car­lock and di­rected by Glenn Fi­carra and John Re­qua, suf­fers from its un­cer­tain tone.

In the dis­tant past, the novel and film of Catch-22 and the movie and television se­ries spin-off M*A*S*H suc­ceeded in ex­tract­ing grim, bloody hu­mour from war; but the for­mer was set in World War II and the lat­ter dur­ing the Korean War, and there­fore nei­ther was par­tic­u­larly cur­rent (though M*A*S*H the movie was widely seen as a com­men­tary on the Viet­nam War, which, in 1970, when the film was re­leased, was still rag­ing). To at­tempt to ex­tract hu­mour from the nasty con­flicts that have fol­lowed in

Meryl Streep, Si­mon Hel­berg and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins; Mar­got Rob­bie in Whiskey Tango Fox­trot, right

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