When asked about his musical influences, David Bowie would cite Florence Foster Jenkins, the wealthy Manhattan socialite who, despite having a truly terrible voice, bankrolled an opera career that ended with a woeful concert at Carnegie Hall in 1944. Just as surprising is the fact one of the most requested programmes from that prestigious venue’s archives is for her critically lambasted recital.
Now, following a fictionalised account in 2015 French flick Marguerite, the Jenkins story has been turned into another wonderful star vehicle for the sublime Meryl Streep.
Bolstered by Hugh Grant on top form as her attentive husband, a head-turning performance from The Big Bang’s Simon Helberg as her mortified pianist, and nimbly appealing direction from Stephen Frears convincingly toeing the fine line between comedy and tragedy, this compelling biopic is a hugely entertaining, compassionate and ultimately rather touching portrait of self-delusion and devotion.
A significant patron of the arts in New York during the Second World War, Florence provided musical instruments for underprivileged children and set up The Verdi Club where she produced, directed and starred in tacky tableaux vivants for select members of high society. But she always wanted to sing opera, and despite her tone-deafness and distinct lack of talent, grappled with Mozart and Strauss arias well beyond the capabilities of most people.
It’s this insulated demimonde utopia that screenwriter Nicholas Martin (making his feature film debut after a prolific career in TV drama) skilfully conjures up with deft precision. Here we have a privileged world where refined friends refuse to be honest because of possible inner-circle banishment, where Florence’s caring common law husband St Clair Bayfield (Grant) lives openly with his mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) – the reason why providing one of the film’s more affecting moments – and where her fresh-from-the-conservatory accompanist Cosme McMoon (Helberg) dies with embarrassment every time she performs.
Nevertheless, Florence believes enough of the faint praise from her cultured cronies to think it’s time to make her debut at Carnegie Hall, after seeing soprano idol Lily Pons entrance spectators. It’s the high-profile move that Bayfield has been dreading. How will he protect Florence once she steps out of her fantasy bubble to face a real audience and all those newspaper critics who have long suspected an Emperor’s New Clothes snow job?
Simultaneously cringe-worthy, uplifting and sobering, this captivating look at the coloratura curiosity is a superb portrayal of a blinkered benefactress clutching at an impossible dream until stark reality intrudes. In Streep’s inspired hands, Florence never becomes the expected figure of fun, but a diva-in-waiting whose unattainable aspirations you fully understand. And one can only imagine how much coaching the Mamma Mia! star needed to be able to sing badly! Streep’s purity in the face of Florence’s vocal limitations and her complete lack of cynicism towards the character are utterly relatable and totally charming. She gives poignancy to how the real Florence summed up her life: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing”.
Equally appealing is Hugh Grant who gives one of his best performances as Florence’s ham actor-turned-dedicated companion who shields her from anything upsetting. His plan to buy up all the newspapers containing reviews of her Carnegie concert subtly imparts Bayfield’s own naivety in the face of his abject adoration. Down on his luck when given a chance by this eccentric woman, Grant imbues Bayfield with an innate kindness you warmly respond to. And while their love story may not be of the most straightforward kind, Grant makes it crystal clear why Bayfield lights up her life.
Meanwhile,Helberg assuredly mirrors the journey that the writer and director want the audience to take. His bright, breezy (and camp) voyage from getting the job with Florence, realising what a poisoned chalice it is, but carrying on regardless through professional embarrassment to hopeless loyalty is spot-on, and Helberg more than holds his own against the powerhouse double act of Streep and Grant.
Brilliantly employing the classic aspects of a costume biopic and balancing well-earned pathos with wry humour, Frears strikes just the right tone, never hitting a false note in this irresistibly winning heart-warmer. Don’t be surprised when awards shower down on this terrific tribute to the love of life, the love of music and how self-perception of both can win out during the final curtain. Or if you don’t manage to get to the end credits without shedding a tear.
Florence Foster Jenkins is released in cinemas on Friday 6 May