'Florence Foster Jenkins': Film Review

Sharp performances, flat script.
8/12/2016

Meryl Streep plays a delusional diva with a uniquely awful voice in this tragicomic biopic from director Stephen Frears.

Based on the true story of a notoriously talentless singer in early 20th century Manhattan, Florence Foster Jenkins is a warm-hearted celebration of single-minded amateurism over slick professionalism, and romantic fantasy over disappointing reality. Aiming for the same kind of affectionate comic tone as The King’s Speech, this gentle musical farce from director Stephen Frears (The Queen) hits more than a few flat notes, but still delivers gentle laughs and classy star performances. Britain and much of Europe will see theatrical rollout in May, while Paramount has lined up a U.S. release for August.

A natural fit for stage and screen, Jenkins was a socialite and opera buff who became infamous for her bizarre, off-key, often unlistenable assaults on the works of Mozart, Verdi, Brahms and others. Her story has been dramatized several times before, notably in the Tony-nominated Broadway play Souvenir and the West End musical Glorious! A lightly fictionalized Jenkins also appeared in the 2015 French film Marguerite, which transplanted her story to 1920s Paris.

Frears and his screenwriter Nicholas Martin focus on events in 1944. Jenkins (Meryl Streep) shares an unorthodox long-term marriage to St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a hammy English stage actor who serves as her devoted manager and official chaperone, even though he lives discreetly in a separate apartment with another woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson).

Shielded from cruel critics by the indulgent Bayfield, Jenkins builds up a cult reputation by giving private recitals to small members-only groups. But she finally risks public exposure by organizing her own sold-out show in Carnegie Hall, hiring young pianist Cosmé McMoon (The Big Bang Theory regular Simon Helberg) as her accompanist. The audience, swollen by hundreds of U.S. army servicemen recently returned from WWII, reacts with a mix of rowdy mockery and charitable good cheer. But the press reviews are inevitably savage, plunging the emotionally fragile Jenkins into a downward spiral.

Sporting a padded midriff and unflattering wig, Streep gives a characteristically robust performance as Jenkins, replicating her glass-shattering shrieks and clumsy stage gestures with meticulous attention to detail. That said, this is one of the veteran Oscar-winner's lighter star turns, all graceless clowning and Absolutely Fabulous mannerisms. The film’s real comic dynamo is Helberg, whose animated face telegraphs a constant churn of anxiety, disbelief and delight, often without resorting to words.

Crinkly and craggy as middle age encroaches, Grant seems to be channeling Roger Moore with his starchy performance. In fairness, he does imbue Bayfield with charm and compassion, and even attempts a sporting burst of jazz dancing. It may just be coincidence that he is playing a sworn enemy of the New York tabloids, echoing Grant’s real-life role as figurehead of Hacked Off, the U.K. campaign group seeking to curtail intrusive press behavior in the wake of the phone-hacking scandals. Tellingly, the only journalist who writes the brutal truth about Jenkins is depicted in the movie as a mean-spirited snob.

British TV veteran Martin’s first feature screenplay is a workmanlike affair full of jazz-age New York clichés and clunky exposition (“There’s Cole Porter! And Tallulah Bankhead!”). His jokes are light and sometimes labored, more reliant on face-pulling overreaction than sharp verbal wit. Jenkins suffered from syphilis for decades, which Martin fleetingly addresses, though he does not pursue recent theories that the disease may have affected her mental state and eccentric performance style.

With Liverpool and London standing in for 1940s Manhattan, the action mostly takes place in a succession of stagey interiors, giving this Franco-British production a televisual feel. Frears directs in perfunctory manner, polished but passionless, and low on visual verve. At times resembling one of Woody Allen’s minor autumnal efforts. Florence Foster Jenkins is a modestly enjoyable crowd-pleaser, but it ultimately feels smaller than its subject, a deeply conventional portrait of a highly unconventional woman.

Distributor: Paramount
Production companies: Qwerty Films, Pathe, BBC Films
Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriter: Nicholas Martin
Producers: Michael Kuhn, Tracey Seaward
Cinematographer: Danny Cohen
Editor: Valerio Bonelli
Production designer: Alan McDonald
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Music: Alexandre Desplat

Rated PG, 110 minutes

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