The story of terrible opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins**** is such a good one, you wonder why it has never been told on screen before.
I recall a 2005, Olivier-nominated West End stage adaptation called Glorious, starring Maureen Lipman, but now, with that strange synchronicity peculiar only to cinema and London buses, two movie versions about the wealthy Manhattan prima donna come along at once.
Xavier Giannoli’s fictionalised and stylised account in Marguerite has been charming French and British audiences for a while now, earning its actress Catherine Frot a deserved Cesar in the process.
Now comes Stephen Frears’ more historically faithful telling, set in New York in 1944, the last year of the deluded chanteuse’s life, although shot in the UK – Liverpool standing in seamlessly for wartime Manhattan – and populated mainly by British character actors (John Sessions, Allan Corduner, Stanley Townsend, Christian McKay and that consummate stage farceur David Haigh) buzzing around the Queen Bee of Meryl Streep in the title role. As such, it’s almost like watching a musical, funny reprise of The Iron Lady.
Both films about the socialite singer, however, approach their subject with such affection and imagination that they transcend biography.
While Marguerite plays with her delusion and its descent into full-blown, operatic tragedy, Frears’ film tiptoes more daintily into farce and poignant comedy, recalling this ever-adaptable director’s previous dalliances with backstage theatrical fare such as Mrs Henderson Presents, starring that other grande dame, Judi Dench. Indeed, you can see Florence Foster Jenkins enjoying a similar trajectory and ending up back on the stage as a musical some time soon. As long as they give out earplugs.
Streep’s first entrance is an hilarious dangle in an amateurish revue for her upscale Verdi Club. She is lowered on a rope playing an angelic muse of inspiration for her own father.
She is energetically supported in her tone-deaf musical endeavours by her husband, the failed Shakespearean actor and “eminent monologuist” St. Clair Bayfield, played with renewed vigour by Hugh Grant in by far his best and most committed performance since, oh I don’t know, his voice work in the animation Pirates. It’s only when you see him raise his game here you realise quite how lazy he’s become most of the time. Bit of a shame really.
His work might not be much of a stretch in his limited range but he is typically charming and his timing zings, giving elegant life to such phrases in Nicholas Martin’s script as: “I doubt even Mrs O’Flaherty can slurp a trout.”
Ms Foster Jenkins’ wealthy eccentricities become the source of mirth, such as a collection of chairs ‘in which notable people have expired”, and her whimsical hiring of pianist Cosme McMoon, played with an irritatingly fey simper by Big Bang Theory star Simon Helberg. Cosme is supposed to be our eyes and chorus, I suppose, trying to understand Florence’s delusions. Helberg nearly pulls it off but is the film’s weakest element.
Grant walks the tightrope with considerable skill, ushering in the changes of tone with beaming, rictus reaction shots while he throws a protective ring around his “Bunny”. The fact that there appears to be genuine affection and love here is what gives the film its emotional core, even while Grant’s St Clair is shacked up in Brooklyn – in an apartment paid for by Madame Florence – with a bohemian mistress, Kathleen, played by the beguiling Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) in a bit of a bare bones part.
And then we come to Streep. Again, she delivers an imperious performance, incorporating comedy, tragedy, musicality and tenderness. She’s sung before, of course, in A Prairie Home Companion, Mamma Mia and, most recently, in Ricki and The Flash – but never quite so badly, which of course requires far more skill. She does it so brilliantly that we laugh ourselves silly at Florence’s operatic stabs.
Her hilarious trills sound like a puppy playing with one of those squeaky toy bones and we can’t help our chuckles, aided by Streep’s inimitable blend of old-school mugging and delicate fragility. We laugh, certainly, but feel guilty about it, and that’s Streep’s genius. She becomes such a real person on screen that, as an audience, we feel we have to behave honestly in front of her.
Working from the real Florence’s recordings (one of which David Bowie once listed among his favourite albums), Streep does all her own bad singing here – it is very hard to sing that awfully on purpose, and her twinkling commitment to the part is, as ever, a thing of wonder. Aided by Consolata Boyle’s elaborately faithful costumes, we get a real feel for the self-created world the rich Manhattanite is capable of weaving around herself in the service of her dreams.
And to a certain extent, these are fulfilled in the climactic concert at Carnegie Hall, an event that in Frears’ hands becomes a torrent of conflicting emotions, from hilarious to tragically miscued. As Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead attend the finale event, I was reminded several times of a Woody Allen film – the segment of To Rome With Love, with the opera singer who can only perform in the shower, comes to mind, as does Bullets over Broadway – in the deceptively masterful simplicity of Frears’ direction. In this age of blockbusters and superhero face-off mayhem, it reminds us that unfussiness is such a virtue.
Frears directs almost as matter-of-factly as he speaks, an unadorned style that can even look shonky on occasion (his Lance Armstrong film The Program was a mess to look at) but here he achieves a clarity of storytelling, giving full room to the gags, characters and emotions without ever going overboard on anything.