Florence Foster Jenkins review

By Greg Hill-Turner 

The tradition of feel-good British comedies, a subgenre in which Stephen Frears’ delightfully uplifting film firmly nestles itself, dictates that its plucky, generally unlikely protagonist will eventually actualise some burgeoning cosmic potential. They may be underestimated, ridiculed or rejected, but they will inevitably come out on top. Not so with Florence Foster Jenkins, based on the extraordinary true story of a New York socialite and music enthusiast determined to pursue her dream of singing, aided by her enormously charming, endlessly devoted husband St Clair and promising young pianist Cosme McMoon. There is but one catch to Florence’s plan: her singing voice, as a particularly forthright audience member puts it, resembles that of a dying cat. Here we have a film less interested in seeing its star rise to greatness; more one focused on the realisation that the pursuit of happiness, be it through music, romance or caring for the hopelessly neurotic, comes unperturbed by the dissenting views of other, less enlightened naysayers.

Meryl Streep is beguiling as the delusional, misguided Florence, a woman of rare generosity and spunky spirit to combat her utter lack of genuine talent. Hugh Grant, the ultimate go-to man for amiably nebbish everyman, gives one of his finest performances to date in an uncommonly multi-faceted role riding the fine line between outlandish exploitation and undying affection. The question of just how aware he is of Florence’s skill level (or lack thereof) lingers throughout, St Clair seemingly unwilling to admit the inherent absurdity his little game has unleashed. The film, however, is stolen outright by Simon Helberg, best known to younger audience as the endearingly awkward engineer Howard on hugely successful sitcom The Big Bang Theory, in a revelatory turn as the level-headed, ambitious McMoon. Early scenes highlighting Cosme’s incredulous reactions to Florence’s rehearsals offer the film’s comic highlight, Helberg’s remarkably expressive face is a wonder to behold. Hilarious and poignant in equal measure, this unlikely threesome provides a formidable emotional undercurrent that never truly reveals itself until the film’s final, intensely bittersweet moments.

Frears, a director not widely renowned for a distinct visual panache, infuses the film with a easy-going, whiskey-tainted buzz typical of the New York music scene. The city’s neon glow, radiant interiors and immensely impressive architecture inhabit every frame, making this Frears’ most aesthetically interesting film to date. His staging is workmanlike, serviceable for the largely unspectacular subject matter, yet there remains a lingering sense that a more inventive filmmaker could have morphed this undeniably lovely film into a future classic. Alas, this is the film we have and it is compulsively watchable just as it is.

Warm, welcoming and pleasant as a lazy Sunday afternoon, Florence Foster Jenkins is (for all its slyly knowing winks towards the camera) a film of uncynical sincerity, one that requires you place a little more emphasis on the heart than the mind. For a film of such magnetic optimism, deliriously funny set-pieces and inevitable heartbreak, this seems like a small favour to ask. If it doesn’t elicit a flood of tears, you may wish to ensure you still have a pulse.