Florence Foster Jenkins – Film Review by Pat V.
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Nicholas Martin
Stars: Rebecca Ferguson, Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant
Stephen Frears’ latest film tells the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress, who dreamed of being a famous opera singer and was not going to let a small matter like her terrible voice stand in her way. The title role stars Meryl Streep, who has already shown off her musical talents in Mamma Mia, Rikki and the Flash and Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Here, however, Streep rise to the challenge of singing constantly and stridently off key in the manner of her subject. The film could be called Till the Flat Lady Sings!
Following, by just a few weeks, the Dublin release of Xavier Giannoli’s excellent film, Marguerite, which also tells Florence’s story, (transposing it to a French setting) Frear’s version is hugely entertaining. Predictably, Streep gives a stellar performance but, overall, the film lacks the subtlety and pathos created by Giannoli and the spectacular Catherine Frot in the role of Marguerite.
This film covers the last year of Florence Foster Jenkins’ life. A life long patron of the arts, we meet her first at The Verdi Club, an exclusive gathering she organised, where her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a second-rate English actor (played by Hugh Grant, grimacing and pouting in his usual mannered style), recited speeches from Shakespeare and Florence presented tableaux vivants and occasionally sang – her rendition of the Song to the Moon from Lakmé is performed with ear-splitting inaccuracy.
Undaunted, Foster Jenkins decided to give a concert at Carnegie Hall (which she did in October 1944) in support of American soldiers injured in WW2. To assist her she needed a reliable pianist and after a series of interviews selected Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg, who delivers a perfectly modulated performance which should certainly earn him a nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category in next year’s Oscars). Foster Jenkins’ wealth meant that she was shielded by her husband and staff who depended on her financially and who hid from her the bad reviews and negative comments. However, Streep sensitive portrayal rescues her subject from being a mere object of derision and convinces us that the people around her who initially exploited her were won over by her passion and determination and that she was genuinely loved.
Among the cast are Irish actors. Brid Brennan, as her maid, gives a sensitive, low-key performance and John Kavanagh is striking in his cameo role as Arturo Toscanini. Stanley Townsend, too, is impressive as a blustering businessman, Phineas Stark, whose blowsy wife, Agnes (Nina Ariadna) tries to save the day when the Carnegie Hall concert goes off track.
Though Frears paints in broad strokes and his characterisation is less subtle than in Giannoli’s film, Florence Foster Jenkins is greatly enjoyable and Meryl Streep give a memorable performance. You may not come away wanting to hum the massacred tunes, but you certainly won’t forget them in a hurry.
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