One for the trill-seekers David Stratton
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