Stephen Frears / Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg / Comedy, Drama / 2016 / PG / 110mins
The story of New York heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, who dreamed of becoming an opera singer despite having a terrible singing voice, is certainly unique. Being one of the many pre-internet stories to go viral by word-of-mouth, a 21st century biopic was always on the cards.
Aside from a glimpse of high society, the story isn’t particularly compelling, more a slice of trivia. That’s why Stephen Frears’s solid casting proves the winning touch. Meryl Streep maintains her immortal status with another fine display in the titular role. Jenkins gives her a little freedom to be expressive and spontaneous, a side rarely seen in the latter stages of her career.
As husband St. Clair Bayfield, Hugh Grant flutters his eyelashes, but thankfully he’s less bumbling – usually his forte – enabling him to assimilate a ruggedness to his British charm. Arguably a career best performance. Simon Helberg, of Big Bang Theory fame, must also get a mention as pianist Cosme McMoon. Like Cosme, we too have no idea what lies in store when Jenkins opens her mouth. His utter disbelief is certainly one of the comic highlights.
Each character has extraordinary depth – perhaps the film’s major failure is the unexplored drama simmering below the comedy tropes onscreen. The biggest stumbling block, however, is raised in-film by the New York Post reporter: Jenkins was talentless and egotistical. But at least she made the world happy for doing what she loved.
It’s an endearing film because it is one that refuses to accept subtlety as eagerly as Madame Jenkins’s vocal chords. Speaking of which, the devotion to music is central. Being Jenkins’s one true love, Frears recognises that the music must also be the fore of her biopic. The humour especially harks to the physical comedy of old – except less Chaplinesque japes and more sonic ‘boon’.
With great acting, wonderful costumes and a mature, funny script, Frears brings a little piece 40s New York to life. An instant crowd-pleaser that remains comfortably restrained. However, for all it’s highlights, the film seems intent on solely interesting a select ‘silver screener’ audience – ironically, much like Bayfield did for Jenkins.
Film as a film – 2 / Target Audience – 4 / General Audience – 3
Florence Foster Jenkins is available online (BFI Player)
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