Florence Foster Jenkins Review
In 1944, an elderly woman with syphilis and a complete inability to sing, hired the Carnegie Hall for a concert recital - with herself as the main (and only) singer. It was a sellout, and memorabilia from the concert are still in great demand. The woman was Florence Foster Jenkins, a rich socialite who was determined to share her genius with the world. What the world wanted, of course, was the opportunity to split their sides with laughter.
Stephen Frears's new film film stars Meryl Streep in the title role, with Hugh Grant as her devoted and protective husband (though in real life they were never married), and Simon Hellberg as her accompanist, Cosme McMoon. It is in almost every way a charming and delightful film. Wisely, the script avoids the potential pitfall of treating her a figure of fun. The fact that she can't sing to save her life is both the most and least important part of the film, which is in fact a love story.
In the film (though not necessarily in real life), St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) is far from being a gold digger. He may have a mistress who he returns to every night, but his life is wrapped up in the happiness of Florence, or as he calls her, 'bunny'. He is carer, minder, bodyguard, manager and - as far as possible - her shelter from the cold wind of reality. It is possibly the most successful and complete performance Grant has ever given.
It almost goes without saying that Meryl is magnificent, but let's say it anyway. She combines a number of paradoxical but plausible characteristics; she is demanding, vague, ruthless, helpless, self-deluded and generous. She has achieved a state of wealth and narcissism where she can do - literally - whatever she wants. If the world's most famous conductor (Toscanini) comes to see her, to ask for money, she can give it - and bask in the glow of the association. If she wants to sing to 3000 people, she can hire the world's most famous concert hall. Money may not buy her love (she gets that free), but it can certainly buy her pretty much everything else.
And equal credit must go to Simon Hellberg, whose name does not appear prominently on the posters, but whose performance matches and complements his more famous costars. McMoon is a young man who knows which side his bread is buttered, but he is also a musician who is (initially) appalled at the standard of singing he is paid so handsomely to accompany. His facial expressions are a treat, and are a significant part of the film's success.
A complete lack of talent - accompanied by a complete lack of awareness - is irresistible. Tim Burton has already made a film about Ed Wood (the world's worst film director) with Johnny Depp; and it surely cannot be long before William McGonagall (the world's worst poet) is also the subject of a biopic. It is perhaps the fact that most of us would never expose ourselves so shamelessly to the world, knowing as we do how useless we are, that makes someone like Jenkins so appealing - both then and now.
It's a real pleasure to see a film which is so uncomplicatedly enjoyable. I suspect it will be a great success.