For the second time this year, ‘legendary’ opera singer and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins’ life is the subject of a major feature film. French movie Marguerite was not a straight biopic, more a loosely inspired standalone film – though a rather good one. So I was especially curious to see how its British counterpart, starring Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep, would turn out in comparison.
I said Foster Jenkins is legendary – perhaps infamous may be a better word, but I hesitate to use it because people did actually like her. Basically, though she knew music – classical opera specifically – she couldn’t sing, and her close friends and family didn’t have the heart to tell her so. Nor did she have an ear for her own voice. She couldn’t hit a right note to save her life but thought she was brilliant.
It was her personality that made her endearing, and Meryl Streep does a brilliant job playing the title character in this film. Get it wrong and her ‘thinking she’s good when she’s really not’ outlook would have been at best annoying, at worst infuriating.
Despite her vocal shortcomings, you fall in love with the character during the movie, and this is testament to Streep’s acting ability. Few, if any, could have played the role better. Those who knew Foster Jenkins personally – and we, the audience, get to this stage over the course of the film – come to feel for her what she imagines her audience are feeling when she sings to them.
Hugh Grant plays her romantic partner St. Clair Bayfield, and I’d daresay it’s his best role; certainly the most interesting one I’ve seen him play. Bayfield himself appears a complicated character; despite being closely involved with Jenkins (throughout the movie we see just how entwined they are) he lives separately from her and has a girlfriend. But somehow you do not dislike him too much; as the film progresses you learn why they share such a convoluted lifestyle and it’s actually quite heartbreaking. Not many movies come close to making me cry (only Inside Out managed it last year); Florence Foster Jenkins almost succeeded. Consider that a huge mark in its favour.
Simon Helberg also stars in a comedic role; he brings an uplifting air to the story. Irish actor John Kavanagh plays Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, who coaches Florence and keeps her spirits high, making her feel like a professional. His may just be the most underrated performance of the film.
This movie is heart-warming and hilarious in equal measure. On the side it also offers an interesting take on the critic/ artist divide. Are Florence’s friends and family correct in keeping the truth from her? That’s a question I found myself pondering.
Were it later in the year, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant would surely both be certainties for Oscar nominations in 2017, and they may deservedly still be in the minds of the Academy in eight months time. Not that I care much about that part; rather, Florence Foster Jenkins is a film worth seeing and appreciating as soon as possible.
9 / 10