This visually rich, exuberant biopic from acclaimed director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) is the second release of 2016 based on the peculiar life story of Florence Foster Jenkins. It is a more visually ambitious and lavish production than its French counterpart Marguerite, but lacks some of the depth and complexity which made Xavier Giannoli’s film so compelling.
Set among the upper-class echelons of New York during the forties, the focus of the story is Florence (Meryl Streep), a wealthy philanthropist with an avid interest in music. She is a keen stage performer, but her passions far outweigh her talent. She is tone deaf and completely oblivious to the shrill awfulness of her own voice. Self funded private recitals are attended by friends and peers only, all of whom feed into her delusional sense of grandeur in order to maintain popularity among the social elite. Central to the deceit is her husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) who encourages his wife’s pursuits out of loyalty, necessity, pity and guilt. His efforts to shield her from reality and critical rebuke enable them both to exist within a fantasy bubble. This facade is ultimately tested when Florence decides to play a public concert at Carnegie Hall.
Despite a fluffy, frivolous tone and formulaic narrative structure, there are a plethora of enjoyable components to this shamelessly old fashioned film. Catherine Frot did an excellent job as the eponymous lead in Marguerite, and Meryl Streep tackles the role with a similar level of skill and finesse here, embodying the character with comical pathos undercut by a sombre, tragic sheen. It is a performance that almost feels contrived to guarantee Streep’s appearance on nominee lists come award season. Hugh Grant is in fine form as Bayfield, showcasing his eclectic range. He handles the farcical elements with aplomb whilst bringing a dramatic gravitas to the film’s more serious moments. Simon Helberg is awkward but entertaining as Cosmé McMoon, Florence’s pianist, who is appalled by Florence’s inept vocals but also gratified by the opportunity his collaboration has afforded him. Production and costume design are particularly striking and give the film a pleasing visual aesthetic which nicely captures a romanticised vision of bygone Manhattan.
The film doesn’t handle the balance between farce and drama quite as well as Marguerite did. At times the jolts between comedy and tragedy sit uneasily together. The characterisation isn’t as interesting either but the momentum is maintained thanks to inspired turns from Streep and Grant. Guided by skilful direction from Frears, the film is a consistently entertaining, touching and elegant portrayal of a fascinating figure from musical history.