Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Sriya Varadharajan 10 May 2016

What does it mean to have talent? It’s certainly different to giftedness. Florence Foster Jenkins, socialite, philanthropist and (terrible) amateur opera star, was certainly not gifted. You can now hear her original recordings for yourself, but there’s no doubt that Foster Jenkins’ talent lay not with her coloratura, but with her ability to inspire a joy in almost everyone she met. Isn’t that in itself a wonderful skill?

In Stephen Frears’ warm comedy about the titular celebrity, humour, drama and entertainment abounds. However, where ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ really transcends similar films is in its emotion and heart. The script is witty, the sets and costumes glamorous, but the real star of the show is the excellent acting from both Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. Seemingly caught in a loop of never-ending rich-boy lovey-dovey roles (think Bridget Jones I, II…) Grant himself expressed concern that his acting talent was not being sufficiently scrutinised by the parts he had chosen in the past. What a brilliant change-of-tact then, as Grant is consistently superb as St Clair Bayfield, the doting husband and carer (but never lover) of Foster Jenkins. 

However the real star of the film is Streep, who is effortlessly charming, witty, melancholy and delusioned as the unexpectedly interesting amateur singer. Streep suspends belief with her nuanced performance, and it is her absolute mastery and commitment to the role which allows the audience to lose itself to the magic, and heartache, of the ‘based on true events’ tale. Her comic timing is perfect while performing the songs, and yet it is perhaps the emotional depth which she affords the character which is the most compelling element of the film, and elevates the brilliant comic role of pianist Cosme McMoon (the hilarious Simon Helberg) to one of moving poignancy – all delicately balanced amid the mysterious and promising beauty of music. 

Yes, there are problems with the film, namely that it succumbs to the occasional lazy stereotype (the slightly irritating gay thespian-types), and that does little to promote black or ethnic minority creative talents. This is less a product of the film itself, and more a recognition that the film industry still has a long way to go in promoting black culture as concertedly as it does white people and their history. That said, I could not recommend a better evening-out this week!