Review: Florence Foster Jenkins – Hitting the right notes

Tom Browne 30 November -0001

The beguiling true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a 20th-century socialite with dreams of becoming an opera star, is charmingly brought to life by director Stephen Frears. It hit the high notes for editor Tom Browne. 

The title character, played with great vim by Meryl Streep, was a New York heiress who found fame in the 1930s and 40s as an amateur opera singer with a notable lack of talent, something that didn’t stop her from performing at the prestigious Carnegie Hall or making records that sold by the bucketload, despite the terrible vocal skills on display.

It’s an intriguing story and one that has attracted filmmakers and playwrights in the past. Last year’s Marguerite was largely based on Florence’s life, and the stage production Glorious!, which attracted Maureen Lipman to the role, has been translated into 27 languages.

Stephen Frears, however, is the perfect director for this sort of material, specialising as he does in extracting the maximum amount of empathy and humour. His films have always trod that thin line between warmth and sentimentality, humour and farce. Most importantly, he has a knack for getting under people’s skin, ensuring that even the most absurd character has human traits.



"Hugh Grant’s best performance since Four Weddings and a Funeral"



Florence, for example, is never merely a figure of fun. We certainly spend a great deal of time laughing at her car-crash singing, particularly in an early scene when she’s introduced to pianist Cosmé McMoon (a wonderful comic performance by Simon Helberg), who went on to accompany her on stage despite misgivings.

The broad comedy is also notable in the scenes where Florence’s partner St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) tries to shield her from terrible reviews by buying up every copy of the New York Times. But to emphasise the humour would be to understate the real pathos of the film.

Florence, who contracted syphilis from her first husband, is someone who clearly suffers both physically and mentally, and her fondness for singing begins to look less like a rich lady’s indulgence—her need for acceptance lends the latter half of the film a tragicomic air. Bayfield, meanwhile, shifts from duplicitous cad in the early scenes to lovestruck devotee by the end. Although much of the focus will be on Streep, this is probably Hugh Grant’s best performance since Four Weddings and a Funeral, and certainly the most substantial.

Although not quite up there with Philomena, The Snapper or My Beautiful Laundrette, this is nonetheless a welcome addition to Stephen Frears’ considerable filmography—one worth singing about from the rooftops, regardless of vocal talent.

Read our interview with director Stephen Frears

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Browse Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in our entertainment shop