The Watchers

The Watchers

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins (UK Cert PG)

The story of American soprano Florence Foster Jenkins may not be known to many, but that will change with the latest film by Stephen Frears (Philomena, Mrs Henderson Presents, The Queen) which stars Meryl Streep in the title role. 

Jenkins was famed for being one of the worst singers to perform in public (a posthumous collection of her recordings has the slightly arch title Murder On The High Cs). An eccentric New York heiress, Jenkins wanted to become an opera singer and had the money to indulge that desire- despite not having the requisite talent to go with it. She was consistently flat, with very little sense of pitch or rhythm, appalling foreign pronunciation and attempted songs that were far beyond her range and ability (such as the challenging 'Queen Of The Night' aria from The Magic Flute). She only ever gave one recital to which the general public could attend, booking out Carnegie Hall in October 1944 when she was at the grand age of 76. She was once quoted as saying 'People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing' (an admirable sentiment)

Frears' film takes a standard biopic approach, with the climax being the Carnegie Hall performance. 

Streep's performance is, as you would expect, flawless (even if the script doesn't always match). She plays Jenkins' eccentric little tics broadly but without ever lapsing into caricature, whilst also showing a more tender and emotional side- Jenkins had a tragic early marriage to a man who would give her syphilis on her wedding night (which may have accounted for some of her difficulties in later life). Her bad singing is very bad, so bad as to almost be good (much like playing the piano, it seems one has to be very good at something to do it badly). 

Hugh Grant gives one of his best performances in years as St Clair Bayfield, Jenkins' second husband, a Shakespearean actor who later acted as her manager. He's sweetly indulgent of Jenkins' plans, never once pulling her short or bringing her back to earth, supporting her and protecting her even in the face of public ridicule (on the morning after the Carnegie Hall recital, he tries to buy every copy of a newspaper he knows has written a scathing review). There's a bit of unnecessary padding showing his relationship with another woman- because of Jenkins' illness, arrangements were made for Bayfield in what appears to be a kind of 'don't ask, don't tell'- which, for me, detracted from the main story, although there is a good turn by Rebecca Ferguson as 'the other woman'.

There's a lovely, gauche and very unassuming performance by The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg who plays Jenkins' accompianist Cosme McMoon. We see him auditioning for her at the beginning and is aghast at the first time he actually hears Jenkins sing. He is much more the voice of reason- although only ever to Bayfield, never to Jenkins herself. Yet, he remains loyal throughout despite his reservations.  

It's a gentle, almost Sunday afternoon film- there's no strong swearing, no violence, no graphic sex- and veers between laugh-out-loud comedy and a touching drama about a woman who never let her lack of talent hold her back. Joyous.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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