Simon Cowell has provided untold hours of entertainment for TV audiences and generated huge income for himself having paraded the latest gaggle of feckless tosspots across our screens as alleged singers squawk appalling renditions of the latest boyband hit but this week’s new release is a reminder that this went on as far back as the forties as epitomised by the real life socialite but little known Florence Foster Jenkins played brilliantly as ever by Meryl Streep. Here was a woman in love with music and had founded The Verdi Club with her husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), an actor who has long given up his dream instead choosing to have married into money and supported her endeavours to bring music and culture to her social circle. With their wealthy socialite members it also gives him the chance to show off his (lack of) acting talent. Those unfamiliar with her story may be unaware of why she should have a film made about her and its kept under wraps for quite some time until they run pianist auditions at their home where Simon Helberg, for once not wearing his Big Bang Theory wig, charms her with his renditions of classic pieces. Having been hired he then attends his first days work where he accompanies Jenkins rehearsal with David Haig as her voice coach . It is one of the stand out scenes of the film when we do finally hear her voice. It is terrible and confirms that the sound of cats being put through mangles went back further than we thought. In fairness those who heard Streep in ‘Mama Mia’ will know her voice is not great though by comparison to Pierce Brosnan in the same film she is Dame Nellie Melba to his Jedward.
It would be easy to see the story as essentially a one joke film but this is a love story which like many of director Stephen Frears back catalogue are centred around a deception. From the moment we meet Jenkins we see that all is not as it appears starting where her husband and dedicated maid put her to bed and as part of the ritual remove her wig, and false eyelashes as she has suffered from syphilis the deceptions continue as Grant is having an illicit affair (which he justifies due to Fosters condition they do not consummate their marriage) but the biggest cover up of all is Foster delusion that she has a great voice – a delusion which is concealed by Grant who ensures that only her most sympathetic and mostly hard of hearing friends attend her private shows as well as journalists who are financially encouraged to write positive reviews. It’s a charade that Grant goes to great lengths to conceal and it’s this love for her that is at the core of the story because, despite his infidelity, which has its own brief Whitehall farce type scene, he still loves her deeply and does all in his power to prevent her suffering any humiliation.
Inevitably though the truth will out and despite Grants every effort she bizarrely ends up playing Carnegie Hall with the inevitable moment of truth which even then she can’t quite understand and it’s in a moment of irony that she finds an honest review of her abilities in a rubbish bin.
This is a perfectly cast film with Streep as much at home with light comedy as she is with dramatic roles and at times looks not dissimilar from the late great Victoria Wood. She is matched by Hugh Grant who seems to have almost retired from the screen having been persuaded back due to Streep’s presence. Grant has taken a lot of stick over the years, with his offscreen behaviour at times overtaking his onscreen roles, but here he shows how great a light comedy actor he is. We’re never going to see his King Lear but as he says himself in the film in a line that seems to be almost purpose written for him, ‘I was a good actor but I was never going to be a great actor’. Simon Helberg is good too in a role where he is really the audience’s disbelieving eyes. And David Haig, an excellent actor who we never see enough of these days, shares the best stand out scene in the film.
This is another gem from director Stephen Frears in a little known story that only came to light when the writer Nicholas Martin found a recording of her singing on YouTube. The film is sure to give the ‘singer’ the audience she always craved.
Here’s the trailer: