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
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
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