Not a trip to the cinema you’ll bitterly resent – or hugely enjoy: Florence Foster Jenkins reviewed

Stephen Frears’s new film fails to ask the most important and basic question: how did Florence not know she was an awful singer?

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

Florence Foster Jenkins

PG, Nationwide

Before we turn our attention to Florence Foster Jenkins — but if you can’t wait, it’s so-so — I feel I should address the several hundred (and counting; hell’s bells) comments below my negative review of Captain America: Civil War last week, and the many pleas that I should ‘get a life!’, which seemed a bit rich. Indeed, as I’m not the one overly invested in a film franchise where the films are barely films, just noisy assemblages of CGI set pieces, am I the one most in need of this ‘life’ being talked about? And now I hope to put this argument to bed, otherwise 1) we’ll be here for ever and poor Florence won’t get a look in and 2) as a person whose ‘opinian’ doesn’t matter and who was plainly ‘biast’ I feel I’ve already experienced enough adventures in spelling to last a lifetime, and therefore don’t wish to kick it all off again.

And now on to Florence. This is based on the rich, real-life 1940s New York socialite who fancied herself as a gifted singer whereas, in truth, she was appalling. Rupert Christiansen has detailed her life on page 42, so I refer you to that, rather than repeat everything here. I will say only that I’ve listened to the original recordings, as available on YouTube, and her Queen of the Night aria may be the worst sound I have ever heard aside, perhaps, from foxes having sex in the middle of the night. It may even be that foxes having sex in the middle of the night are more tuneful. Why didn’t she know? It’s possible there is no answer to that, given the delusional nature of delusions, but I do wish this film had asked anyhow.

It’s directed by Stephen Frears, who has had his highs (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen, Philomena) and his lows (Tamara Drewe, Mrs Henderson Presents) and this is neither high nor low but a middling one, taking its place alongside The Program, say. It gets us from A to B. It does the job. It’s not a trip to the cinema you’ll bitterly resent, as can happen when, for example, it’s just hours and hours of one thing smashing into another thing. But it can never quite decide whether it wants to be comic or tragic, whether it wants us to laugh at or with, and in fully committing to neither, it often lapses into sentimentality of the most cloying kind.

Meryl Streep, at her most winsome, stars as Florence, who is certainly introduced comically. Here she is, a vision in chiffon and angel-wings, being lowered stutteringly from the ceiling as part of a variety show performed for the Verdi Club, an organisation of her own founding. In attendance is St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, at his most Hugh Grant-ish, which is strangely touching these days), a failed Shakespearean actor who is also her common-law husband and who, if you go by this, is entirely devoted. His job is to protect her from derision while keeping her dream alive, but I kept thinking: if he truly loved her, wouldn’t the kindest thing have been to pull her aside and say simply ‘No, Flo. No’? I just never understood his motivation. At all.

It then continues comically. Florence decides she wants to put on a solo singing performance so Bayfield gets to it, hiring a vocal coach from the Metropolitan Opera (David Haig) who fawns all over Florence for her money, and isn’t about to say anything, and a naïve young pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg). This sets the film up for the best and funniest scene, when Florence starts to sing and McMoon first hears her voice. He’s like a trapped animal. His eyes register fear, panic, bafflement. It’s hilarious, but once Frears has had his big reveal there’s nowhere else to go, and the sentimentality starts to pile up.

Many scenes are included simply to build our sympathy. For example, at one point Florence pays a surprise visit to McMoon in his apartment. The visit serves no purpose except that, as she’s doing his washing up, she starts to tell him something of her life — her cruel father; the first husband who gave her syphilis. But it isn’t moving because it feels so heavy-handed, as if it’s been jetted in solely for this reason, rather than forming a natural part of the narrative. Many other questions also go unanswered. Did she know Bayfield had another woman on the go? If audiences love Florence because she is terrible, does that delegitimise their enjoyment? So it is ultimately unsatisfying, as a psychological profile and otherwise. But that is just my ‘opinian’.

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Show comments
  • RavenRandom

    Good review.
    So you decided to double down on Captain America criticism. Brave.

  • Sue Smith

    I already know this film will absolutely leave me cold. Unappealing characters are hardly the stuff of riveting cinema. And there are so many twee films out there – including costume dramas/period pieces – for the ‘mature’ cinema-goer which I find an absolute bore. I want to be challenged, not patronized. I love the Coen Brothers and films with interesting, intelligent and sympathetic characters with a complex storyline. These films are so few and far between. Usually we are subjected to dull offerings like “Marigold Hotel” or “Philhomena” or some winsome treat about old people. Bring on the intrigue and sophistication of a Hitchcock, eg. “To Catch a Thief”. Where, oh, where are the meaty films for intelligent cineastes?? Another great film “The Sea Inside”. Please let us experience cinema for very grown up people, not patronizing pap. Where are the “Chinatowns” and “Gran Turinos” and “American Snipers”? Also, “Million Dollar Baby” and “Brokeback Mountain”. And “Donnie Brasco”. Those quality films seem to be a thing of the past.

    • JohnJ

      You should see the recently released “Marguerite” – a gentle delicate version of the same story from France.
      With Catherine Frot, the portrait is of the affect she had even on the hardest soul. There was not a dull moment.
      At one point she is presented with a bouquet of daisies and the girl remarks “Marguerite pour Marguerite”. At this little comment, you realize that her innocence and openness is that of a daisy.

      • Sue Smith

        Thanks for the tip. I’ll watch out for it. When I hear people my own age (over 60) telling me “Sue, you’d love this film” I know I need to avoid it like poison. There are so few connoisseurs out there these days!!!

    • Tim Wobble

      well last years ‘ Foxcatcher ‘ was in that class Sue … there are some still …..’ Holy Motors ( 2012) ‘, ‘ Grand Budapest Hotel ‘ (2014) , ‘The Artist ‘ (2011) was amazing too ….and of course ‘ Gravity ‘ (2013 ) if you were sensible enough to see it in 3 D

      • Sue Smith

        I haven’t heard of “Foxcatcher” but will Google it now. Such a dearth of really good films, as I said, but thanks for your little recommendations.:-)

        You know, I think Eastwood is about the smartest film-maker around these days – but we won’t have him for much longer. “American Sniper” was a deeply disturbing but absolutely outstanding recent film of his I enjoyed. There’s one iconic scene in it which is just unforgettable and, if you’ve seen it, you’ll know the one I mean!

        • Tim Wobble

          really gosh I did’nt know it was supposed to be so good ! I’ll have to check it out now -thanks ….

    • Donafugata

      It would be impossible to disagree, Sue, you have identified the current trend in patronising, innocuous rubbish aimed at a mature audience.

      Last year I was dragged along to see Lady in a Van, knowing it wouldn’t be for me but a sort of good deed to the person I went with.

      By three-quarters of the way through I thought I was going to weep with the sheer tedium and utter despair that it would ever end.
      I’m not easily shocked but the scatology almost made me vomit.

      The film under review here presumably is based on its one and only joke. Meryl Streep is rapidly morphing into the American version of Maggie Smith.

      Both have been around far too long.

      • Sue Smith

        At last: somebody who agrees with me!!! Thank you for your comments. Last night on pay TV I watched again “Gran Turino” and enjoyed more than previously its politically incorrect, pungent yet humorously laced social observations. Eastwood has matured into an astonishing narrator of American history, culture and values and I was wondering, as the credits rolled to Jamie Cullum’s wonderful voice, that when Eastwood dies where would that leave American cinema and somebody like me? He’s the quintessential 21st century John Ford – without the pratfalls and goofy humour. Eastwood is one who HASN’T been around for too long.

        Like you, I’m bored senseless with elderly female actors; could never stand Maggie Smith. And I’m sorry to say I avoid like the plague Judy Dench and Helen Mirren – especially since the latter have sold out to megaplex schlock!! Meryl has her moments, but they are few and far between these days. One actress who has never bored me is Julie Walters!!!!