Florence Foster Jenkins movie review: 'Meryl Streep shines in this wry comedy'
If Florence Foster Jenkins had lived in our cruel and narcissistic time she might have turned up, shy and bashful, on one of those awful TV talent shows, only to have her hopes and illusions cruelly dashed by a surgically enhanced panel of judges. But she didn't: she was at her prime in early 20th-century New York, and used a fortune inherited from her disapproving father to pursue her dream of becoming a great opera singer. Only one problem: Florence hadn't a note in her head. But she managed to get away with it for a while.
This is not the first movie inspired by Ms Foster Jenkins to have reached our shores this year. The other, a French film called Marguerite, was a handsome but flabby pantomime, but this Stephen Frears production takes a more rigorous and traditional route. Meryl Streep is Florence, a sturdy middle-aged New York socialite who's carved out a happy enough little life for herself. She lives in modest splendour in a handsome Manhattan apartment, is doted on by her dashing partner St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), and fêted by friends and admirers at her annual concerts at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Heroically attired in period costumes, she belts out stirring renditions of challenging arias by Verdi, Brahms and Mozart, and blushes proudly as the stage is pelted with flowers.
But it's all a fantasy: all entrants to her concerts are carefully vetted by the eagle-eyed Bayfield to ensure that they're authentic "music lovers". No riff-raff - or critics - are allowed. And Bayfield's devotion, though genuine, has its limits - he has a younger, slimmer lover (Rebecca Ferguson) on the other side of town.
Florence may be aware of this, and may even have moments of doubt about her own singing abilities, but all of these St Clair Bayfield manages to charmingly dispel. Stars of the real music world like Arturo Toscanini, Enrico Caruso and Lily Pons, come to pay court to her, on the make usually, though perhaps also charmed by her absurd but oddly heroic spirit. But things take a nasty turn when Florence decides to perform a concert for 2,000 fans at Carnegie Hall.
In a barn like that it will be impossible to shield her shortcomings from the dreaded newspaper critics, and St Clair does all in his power to dissuade her. But as the lady's not for turning, he hires a nervy young pianist called Cosmé Moon (played by Simon Helberg from The Big Bang Theory) to be her accompanist as she enters the musical valley of death.
In Florence Foster Jenkins, a war is in play between the opposing magnetic forces of comedy and pathos: too much of the latter would have made Mr Frears' film a crashing bore, too much of the former might have seemed heartless.
In the end he and his two stars get the balance exactly right in a film that delights in its characters' harmless eccentricities and delusions.
For Florence is not the only one cherishing hopeless pipe dreams: St Clair Bayfield once fancied himself a great Shakespearean actor, but couldn't cut the mustard.
"We had to hide the reviews from him," Florence whispers darkly at one point.
Her own artistic escapades offer an escape from relentlessly grim realities: as a young woman she contracted syphilis during her first, unhappy marriage, ending the chance of motherhood.
So she's retreated to a fantasy world where everyone's nice, she can sing, and is adored by all.
Ms Streep is delightful in the role, giving Florence a kind of quiet grace that counteracts her silliness, and getting tremendous comedy out of the singing sequences, which are suitably excruciating.
Hugh Grant, when given the chance, is a gifted and wonderfully subtle comic actor, and is sublime here as the flawed but unerringly kind Bayfield, who clucks around his beloved Florence like an anxious cockerel.
Florence Foster Jenkins (PG, 110mins)