There’s a thing that used to happen in the X-Factor (and may still do, I have to confess I haven’t watched it for a while) where deluded fame hungry and tone deaf auditionees would berate the judges for telling them quite how bad they were. “It’s my dream and you can’t take that away from me,” was the kind of thing they’d say, tearfully and angrily, while an implacable Simon Cowell would sit with his arms crossed. Well, to a certain degree that is what the plot of Florence Foster Jenkins most brings to mind – to what extent should intensely untalented performers with a dream be indulged?
This is based on true story about a real woman, Florence Foster Jenkins, who has widely been considered the worst singer in the world. Or at least the worst singer ever to commit her vocal stylings to vinyl. A lot of her recordings are available for your own listening pleasure on YouTube, which is where the writer Nicholas Martin first encountered them. He has done a very deft job of adapting the story into the necessary dramatic beats – this is not a biopic as such, more of a portrait; it uses the true events of her life to create a fictionalised but dramatically truthful whole. And, it has to be said, a very, very entertaining one.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is a wealthy New York heiress whose love of the arts has led her to sponsor and patronise a huge number of projects. An accomplished pianist who no longer plays because of illness, she’s at the centre of 1940s New York society and a well known figure in the world of music. But her vocal skills are not well known, and although he happily indulges her desire for singing practice her husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) is careful to protect her from the reality of the situation. The reality being, as a singer she really stinks. Hilariously so. And she wants to sing in public, to share what she believes is a unique gift. This is clearly not a good idea and Bayfield does his best to protect her from an enormous fall. Florence is mortally unwell, and even though he is conducting an affair Bayfield is her sworn and dedicated defender.
The film is a rare delight – a character as self important and deluded as Florence Foster Jenkins shouldn’t be sympathetic, but Nicholas Martin’s script, Stephen Frears’s direction and Meryl Streep’s performance make her someone we genuinely care about. That’s a tricky thing to pull off, and could very easily not work at all. But it does work, and works superbly. We forgive Florence’s excesses because of the skilful way Streep makes it clear that the character cares so deeply. The things she has lost, her generosity – they all take the edge off what could be a horribly difficult personality.
The world of 1940s New York is brought beautifully to life – this is a film with an enormous amount of (completely unnoticeable) CGI. This is not what you would describe as an effects movie, but not a single shot was filmed outside of the UK and it looks and feels like New York. The visual effects team have done an incredible job, as have the design team in general. The world has been created so well its a great relief to see that all of the actors fit into it so snugly.
It’s also nice to see Simon Helberg, who plays the pianist tasked with accompanying the awful singing of Florence, showing that he is capable of much more than playing the awful Howard Wolowitz in The Big Bang Theory. He’s gentle and quiet, like a lost lamb being taken to the slaughter. He’s perhaps a little too jumpy, but his comedic reactions are very funny indeed and he is great support.
The stand out performance though is by Hugh Grant. He has never been better, this is an astonishingly good piece of work – skillful, in command, funny and vulnerable. It is a spectacularly mature and quietly moving performance. Onscreen his appearance seems to be slowly morphing into Patrick McGoohan, but as a performer he is kinder, less spiky and more charming. As this is a comedy it’s quite likely he will be overlooked come awards season, and that would be a very great injustice.
The comedy is big and funny, but never cruel – it’s at the expense of the character without ever being vindictive. A far darker and film could have been made of this story, and it’s to the credit of all involved that the movie is so enjoyably gentle. A comedy film that frequently makes the audience laugh out loud is a great thing. A comedy film which allows us to feel an empathetic reaction to a hopelessly deluded main character and which moves us as well as making us laugh is something which should be celebrated. It’s a simple story, very well told, with never a moment out of place.
Is it maybe too gentle, too old fashioned? No, it’s just right.
Florence Foster Jenkins is out now and is a lot of fun.