Stephen Frears’ entertaining biopic stars Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and a scene stealing Simon Helberg

Stephen Frears’ entertaining biopic stars Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and a scene stealing Simon Helberg

Joyce Glasser reviews Florence Foster Jenkins (May 6, 2016)

Five months after the D-Day landings and five months before Hitler’s suicide, the American socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) died peacefully, age 76, in the luxury Manhattan hotel suite she shared with her second, much younger husband of 37 years, St Clair Bayfield (a delightful Hugh Grant). Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins is a bitter-sweet comedy about the real-life aspiring pianist, music patron and tone-deaf opera singer who became famous for her inability to sing on key.

Florence Foster Jenkins is so much fun, and so joyfully made and acted, that you’ll want to see it twice.  This is despite a few false steps where Frears and scriptwriter Nicholas Martin, go for broad comedy, even at the expense of character.

Fourteen year-old Florence was so strong-willed and so obsessed with music that she eloped with a much older man when her wealthy father refused to pay for her music lessons — a mistake which St Clair Bayfield does not repeat. Florence founded the Verdi Society and felt it her duty to perform for the members.  After securing lessons to prepare for some challenging arias, Foster Jenkins and Bayfield set out to find an accompanist.

Florence is immediately taken by Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg, superb),  a diminutive, nerdy looking young man, who cannot believe his ears when he first hears his new client’s voice. Nor can McMoon believe his ears when he learns what his salary will be.  While McMoon fears that his association with Foster Jenkins will undermine his reputation and career prospects, the financial compensation is  too generous to pass up. The comic timing in McMoon hilarious audition scene is worth the price of admission alone.

Florence’s, first, short-lived husband, Dr Thomas Jenkins, gave Florence the surname named she kept, but also the syphilis that, that allegedly cut short her promising career as a pianist.  We learn this half way through the film, when Florence visits McMoon in his tenement flat. Perhaps because she is doing his dishes as they chat, you might start thinking of Streep’s wonderful performance in Julie and Julia.  If Streep does not exactly step out of character here, her portrayal of Foster Jenkins is less nuanced than one would expect.

You have to ask yourself how Jenkins could have played the piano at the White House as a girl if she were tone-deaf, unless her father’s influence played a part, or unless her condition arose later in life as a result of the syphilis.  McMoon is the last person on earth to consider asking the question, as he is paid to play along with his client’s delusion, and has all he can do to keep a straight face during rehearsals.

Still of Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) - Credit IMDB

Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins

The syphilis also explains why St Clair Bayfield, a failed Shakespearean actor, puts his wife to bed and then spends the night in his bachelor pad.  Bayfield serves as a carer, friend and manager to his music-loving wife by day, and as a lover and golf and dance partner to his party-loving mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) by night.

When Foster-Jenkins shows up unexpectedly at the bachelor pad, Frears stages a farcical scene straight out of Alan Ayckbourn or Francis Veber, with revellers in various stages of undress being shoved into cupboards and the like. This prolonged scene is puzzling as it is difficult to believe that Foster Jenkins would be unaware of her husband’s mistress and would risk the humiliation of visiting his apartment without warning.

St Clair Bayfield could control his wife’s concerts for the Verdi Society, where sympathetic and sycophantic audiences were too polite to laugh out loud and where honest critics could be excluded.  But then patriotic fervour got the better of Foster Jenkins, determined to do her bit for the soldiers fighting over seas.  When she insists on performing at NYC’s famed Carnegie Hall, it becomes a matter of damage limitation, as St Clair Bayfield scrambles to buy up all the newspapers containing negative reviews.

We all suspected that there was nothing that Meryl Streep couldn’t do, but when she sang Stephen Sondheim like a pro in Into the Woods and performed country western music in last year’s Ricki and the Flash, we were convinced of it.  Here, Streep rises to the challenge of singing badly, and there’s an art to that, too.

Just two months ago, we saw Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite, a loose retelling of Jenkins’ story set in 1920’s France and starring Catherine Flot.   While both Flot and Streep impress with their ability to balance the deluded fool and the sympathetic victim, Flot has the edge when it comes to eliciting compassion for the character and tears at the end.

You can watch the film trailer here: