The last time we saw the chameleon that is Meryl Streep in a musical role it was in Rikki and the Flash, where she managed to utterly convince as an ageing rocker with a troublesome daughter. The titular Florence Foster Jenkins is something else entirely. Streep plays a genuine historical character who lived only for music and who enacted a whole series of infamous concerts during the 1940s.
She was remarkable for a variety of reasons. As a teenager, she’d been a musical prodigy but an unwelcome dose of syphilis, passed on to her by her first husband when she was eighteen, had left her incapable of playing the piano. Her only other option was to sing and luckily for her, she had inherited her father’s fortune and was able to fund a series of private concerts. The reviews were generally favourable, largely because of the sterling efforts of her second husband, former actor St Clare Bayfield (played here with great charm by Hugh Grant) who smoothed his wife’s path by bribing reviewers and ensuring that she never ever witnessed people laughing at her – something they were likely to do, because of course, she couldn’t carry a tune to save her life.
The film opens with her auditioning for an accompanist and she soon settles on Cosme McMoon (a beautifully understated turn by Simon Helberg) who finds himself conflicted by his desire to play good music and his understandable horror at the noises he hears coming from the mouth of Ms Jenkins. The situation is manageable when the concerts are kept small and intimate but when on a whim, Jenkins books herself a performance at Carnegie Hall in front of an audience of 3000, it’s clear that Bayfield and McMoon are going to have a more difficult job on their hands. And to compound matters, she’s only gone and made a blooming record!
This is a slight but perfectly judged film, skilfully directed by Stephen Frears and built around a wonderful comic performance from Streep. If you think there’s not much humour to be milked from such a tragic premise, don’t be fooled – you’ll laugh your way through much of this and towards the end, you’ll almost certainly be close to tears. The script, by Nicholas Martin, is adept at confounding your expectations. Bayfield, who at first appears to be an unspeakable cad (he led a double life, living with a young woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson)) clearly did love his wife and lavished great care and attention on her at every turn, unlike musical virtuosos such as Arturo Toscanini and Carlo Edwards, who happily took a series of cheques from her but never once turned up to show their support.
In an age where the likes of The X Factor and BGT have elevated the championing of musical mediocrity to an art form, Jenkins’ story seems a particularly prescient one – and for Streep’s performance alone, this is worth seeking out.