Florence Foster Jenkins

 

star



Hugh Grant returns to the screen to partner Meryl Streep in what is in effect the second 

film released this year derived from the story of the famous (yet inept) would-be diva.

 
Florence Foster Jenkins
 

Nothing is more divisive than comedy when it comes to deciding if a film works or fails to do so. Consequently there may be those who enjoy Meryl Streep’s latest film despite the fact that I for one regard it as a disaster area. The problem here is one of tone. As the film reminds us at the outset, Florence Foster Jenkins is based on true events, the very same ones indeed that, transposed to France in the 1920s, were recently the basis of the French film Marguerite. That surely means that in presenting it first and foremost as a comedy, the writer, Nicholas Martin, and the director, Stephen Frears, needed to aim for an approach in which the humour did not go beyond the bounds of credibility. The fact that the real-life story of the American socialite and arts promoter who gave operatic recitals and achieved fame regardless of her inability to sing was improbable enough in itself makes this not less but more essential.

Streep is a great actress but, on the basis of Death Becomes Her (1992) and now this, one can suggest that judging the quality of comedy screenplays is her Achilles heel. In performance terms she is not to blame here since even before her entrance an inept rendering of lines from Shakespeare given before an audience by her actor husband (Hugh Grant) is pitched too high not to seem ridiculous. But this is Frears’s chosen level and, when Florence arrives unexpectedly at the house where her husband keeps his mistress, it is played as pure farce. Similarly, when a woman not geared up to respond positively to Florence’s appalling singing has to be taken out of the concert hall, she is portrayed as having to crawl on all fours on the floor of the corridor shrieking with laughter. Much later on some servicemen present at a Carnegie Hall performance do tell Florence face to face that she was hilarious under the impression that this had been her intention, but irrationally they still seem to show concern over the fact that she might see the one honest press report on her recital

But, while such scenes take us away from anything believable and puts us in a make-believe world, the film still chooses to reveal that Florence was a victim of syphilis contracted earlier from her first husband. Although Florence Foster Jenkins is at 110 minutes a far better length than Marguerite, I feel in retrospect that, due to my disappointment in recognising the French film’s failure to achieve its full potential, my rating for it was rather too harsh since it is by far the better of the two films. Here, for example, by concentrating only on events in 1944 the film fails to explain half as well as Marguerite did how, starting with private performances, the influential but inept singer could get away with it and even earn false praise. Since Florence Foster Jenkins does eventually turn more serious and ends up by suggesting that it was a savage review that led to Florence’s death, I should add that if this review were to kill off Streep or Grant, or even Frears, I would regret it. But I side with the critic in the film who believes that it is indeed his job to tell the truth as he recognises it even if others may give a different verdict.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Josh O’Connor, David Haig, Christian McKay, John Sessions, John Kavanagh, David Menkin, Mark Arnold, Paolo Dionisotto, Thelma Barlow, Ewan Stewart.

 

Dir Stephen Frears, Pro Michael Kuhn, Tracey Seward, Nicholas Martin and others, Screenplay Nicholas Martin, Ph Danny Cohen, Pro Des Alan MacDonald, Ed Valerio Bonelli, Music Alexandre Desplat, Costumes Consolata Boyle.

 

Qwerty Films/Pathé/BBC Films etc.-Pathe.
110 mins. UK. 2016. Rel: 6 May 2016. Cert. PG.