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She is the worst goddamn singer in the whole world!

Florence Foster Jenkins
(2016)

(SPOILERS) A clueless old luvvie beset by dodgy vocal chords holds forth before a rapt peer group, little aware of how foolish she sounds. But enough about Meryl’s Golden Globes performance. Florence Foster Jenkins is good period fun, with a splash of pathos, in the serviceable manner that British heritage pictures tend to deliver so well. Stephen Frears, a genre-versatile director with a number of very good pictures on his CV has made an easily digestible piece of fluff that seems built for Oscars and Streep’s annual nomination assault. It would be mean-minded to find significant fault with what’s on offer, but it’s worth noting that the darling of the awards circuit’s performance is not one the best herein.


Indeed, there’s a whiff of déjà vu about her mannered delivery. Not exactly in a bad way, as she’s become quite adept at comedy since the late ‘80s, at which point she couldn’t get arrested (remember She Devil?) But if what we’re getting is a ham playing a ham, the problem is that the ham in question is acting royalty; Meryl could never be a truly great ham, the sort who can go off the deep end and turn ham into something to be relished. She’s much too controlled, measured and faux-humble for that.


So it’s Hugh Grant, as St Clair Bayfield, husband and manager of Florence’s New York heiress, and Simon Helberg, as her pianist Cosmé McMoon, who deserve the lion’s share of the plaudits. One might argue Grant is the ultimate actor for déjà vu, always giving the same performance, often in what appears to be the same film (certainly in the same role). But there’s a reason (apart from the way in which he actually doesn’t think he’s much cop, not faux-humbly so) Grant is so selective with his material; he rightly knows he’s best suited to certain sorts of roles, and while they’re very different kettles of acting fish, he has as keen a sense of this as his surname’s sake Cary did.


You need someone charming and likeable to play a character who is essentially a philanderer and questionable in terms of the extent to which he’s a gold-digger using his relationship to facilitate a particular lifestyle, career and social whirl. Grant embodies this side of St Clair but also a genuine devotion to Florence, and we don’t doubt that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s also easy to forget just what masterful, natural comic timing Grant has; when he’s in a scene with Streep, it’s difficult not to see her overplaying her way through the role while all Hugh needs is the odd inflection or gesture.


I’m not a big fan of The Big Bang Theory – it’s passable and inoffensive it happens to be on and I happen not to have the energy to lift the remote – but my appreciation of Helberg’s abilities has gone up hugely on seeing him here. There’s something slightly Alan Cumming-esque about his flighty, slightly shrill performance, but while it’s ostensibly played for laughs, he knows exactly when to switch into sincere and empathic. At first we consider Cosmé superior and a bit snotty, but despite his concerns over career suicide by association with Florence (the financial temptation can only be so much of a carrot), he too develops great affection for the “singer”, whom he found almost impossible to restrain his mirth at on first recital.


Helberg and Grant bounce off each other very well too, as Cosmé becomes privy to St Clair’s peccadillos, with the latter making him the fall guy when Florence witnesses the aftermath of a rowdy party (“When I said help yourself to a nightcap, I meant just one! Look what he’s done!”) It isn’t only Cosmé’s reaction to Florence that elicits laughs; Frears knows well the infectious nature of uncontrolled hilarity, such that when David Mills’ socialite pal of Rebecca Ferguson (as Kathleen, St Clair’s girlfriend) witnesses Florence for the first time his attempts to restrain himself are a hoot, only topped by Nina Arianda’s Agnes Stark, eventually led from the concert on all fours, wracked by uncontrollable hysterics.


Agnes’ subsequent turnabout at the Carnegie Hall gig, then, as Florence is assailed by uncouth armed forces hecklers, is just the kind of move the picture could have done without, offering a treacly celebration of how Florence’s sheer, undaunted, oblivous bravery and purity of spirit affects all she comes into contact with.


As to how aware the actual Florence was of the less-than-genuine appreciation of her admirers, the verdict appears to be mixed. She had been singing for years prior to the compressed events depicted in the picture, so some say there’s no way she wasn’t, and didn’t to some extent thrive on it. On the other hand, the response to the Carnegie Hall concert is said to have deeply hurt her (although she suffered a heart attack shopping five days later, rather than retiring to her death bed as depicted here). Likeable as it is, Florence Foster Jenkins is little more than the latest in a line of serviceable, fast-food period pictures; after the heat dies down from its various nominations, you’ll soon forget it existed.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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