The story of Florence Foster Jenkins is almost too strange to be true. A wealthy New York socialite and passionate patron of the arts, she founded and funded her very own opera club and insisted on being a performer as well an observer, and despite a serious lack of talent went on to sing concerts in venues as esteemed as Carnegie Hall and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. This was only possible thanks to the ill-advised efforts of her friends and husband to keep out unsympathetic audience members and critics, until – in the final year of her life – she gave a concert to the general public, with predictably calamitous results.
While there is undoubtedly a comedic aspect to the tale, its tragic elements – Florence’s self-delusion, affliction with syphillis and public humiliation – are just as significant, leaving it incumbent on any retelling to somehow balance both sides. Sadly, Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) gets the balance wrong with his latest film, with the result that neither the gags nor the heartfelt moments come off as intended. A good chunk of Florence Foster Jenkins is devoted to scenes whose sole purpose seems to be to demonstrate just how bad Florence (Meryl Streep) is at singing, amusing at first but becoming increasingly tiresome. Similarly, much of the action revolves around Florence’s husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and friends arranging concerts for Florence while each time doing their best to shield her from embarrassment, resulting in a narrative which – like Florence’s voice – feels flat and repetitive. The singing scenes are just one example of the film’s jarringly primitive sense of humour: others include Florence’s singing teacher accidentally dry humping his student and a foul-mouthed, one-dimensional and stereotypical Italian American Princess played by Agnes Stark.
The performances are similarly unsophisticated. Streep’s Florence lacks psychological depth, while Simon Helberg’s performance (as reluctant accompanying pianist Cosmé McMoon) relies far too much on eye-rolling and irritating squeaks and giggles to have emotional impact. An exception to the rule is Hugh Grant, who is better than ever as Florence’s charming, slightly past-it thespian husband. Another positive is the film’s rich evocation of 1940s New York and its fading classical music scene – perhaps Florence’s humiliation is meant to symbolise this decline – beautifully captured by a moment in which a Chopin prelude begun on the piano morphs on the soundtrack into a jazzy cover. Sadly however, this polished exterior cannot mask the fact that Florence Foster Jenkins is a poor and uninspired showing from an experienced director capable of far better.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka