A de­li­ciously dire diva has her day

The true(ish) story of the world’s worst opera singer makes for com­edy gold, thanks to its star dou­ble act, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS -


Di­rected by Stephen Frears. Star­ring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Si­mon Hel­berg, Re­becca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, David Haig, Brid Brennan, John Ka­vanagh, Stan­ley Townsend. PG cert, gen­eral re­lease, 110 min

We don’t wish to be cruel to such an en­ter­tain­ing project, but there is a lie at the heart of Stephen Frears’s lat­est film. Florence Fos­ter Jenk­ins seems to be­lieve that it is on the tit­u­lar foghorn’s weighty side. Mrs Jenk­ins, a sweet-na­tured New York so­cialite who died to­ward the end of the sec­ond World War, is of­ten cel­e­brated (if that is the word) as the worst opera singer ever. Sup­ported by a hus­band who paid off crit­ics and hired com­pli­ant au­di­ences, she re­put­edly be­lieved her­self pos­sessed of a mighty tal­ent un­til shortly be­fore her demise.

Frears’s film fea­tures some cel­e­bra­tion of her de­light in per­for­mance. But it still begs us to howl at Jenk­ins’s com­i­cally wretched de­liv­ery. Oh, well. The com­ple­men­tary turns by Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep are so de­light­ful that few will worry about the cre­ative hypocrisy.

Ap­par­ently forged in the same ship­yard that gave us Mar­garet Du­mont (Grou­cho Marx’s great foil), Streep’s Jenk­ins is a hur­ri­cane of be­nign

ego and ran­dom gen­eros­ity. The cur­rent, funny Streep is fault­less in her ap­proach to the mu­sic. There is noth­ing that amus­ing about be­ing just off-key, but Streep finds end­less ways to man­gle the tim­ing and dis­tort the vol­ume.

Most hi­lar­i­ous of all is Jenk­ins’s thump­ingly bad act­ing. Re­mem­ber that Les Dawson needed to play the pi­ano well in or­der to play it that badly.

Mean­while, as Jenk­ins’s hus­band, Hugh Grant, an ac­tor too of­ten ma­ligned, glides through the ac­tion like a Noel Coward char­ac­ter stranded be­tween Mer­chant Ivory pomp and White­hall farce. The scene that finds him caught by Florence fol­low­ing an evening of de­bauch­ery could have been plucked straight from Oops, Where’s Me Bloomers? (that’s a com­pli­ment).

The script, by TV spe­cial­ist Nicholas Martin, is noth­ing special. Un­like Mar­guerite, the ex­cel­lent re­cent French take on the same story, Florence Fos­ter Jenk­ins ap­proaches the story from the per­spec­tive of the men in the singer’s life. As a re­sult, Florence re­mains a slightly dis­tant car­i­ca­ture through­out. Still, there is enough ma­te­rial there for Grant and Streep to fash­ion some first-class com­edy.

Oh, and speak­ing of fash­ion, our own Con­so­lata Boyle’s cos­tumes are to die for.

So­prano mys­tique Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep

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