Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

in a century of cinema

Florence Foster Jenkins

Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Nicholas Martin
With: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, and John Sessions
Cinematography: Danny Cohen
Editing: Valerio Bonelli
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Runtime: 111 min
Release Date: 12 August 2016
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

The great English director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen) hits an unpleasantly sour note with the pseudo-comical true story of American heiress and patron of the arts Florence Foster Jenkins. The peerless Meryl Streep gives another immersive performance in the title role, and she also appears to have loads of fun depicting the seventy-five year old socialite whose singing voice, despite her love of music, was unbearably out of tune.  The movie chronicles how Jenkins’ husband, the prosaic Shakespearean actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) carefully curated her music lessons and small recitals, limiting her audience to those whose approval she could count on, thus preventing her from getting any authentic reactions or realistic feedback.   Soon after Jenkins teams up with the young composer/piano player Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) she decides she's ready for the big time, and unbeknownst to her husband, books a public concert at Carnegie Hall.

This is second film released this year inspired by the life of Jenkins. The France/Czech production Marguerite (2015), directed by Xavier Giannoli, told a similar, but fictional story set in 1920s Paris rather than 1940s New York. While Marguerite doesn’t boast a star turn by Ms. Streep, it is far more credible and entertaining than Florence Foster Jenkins.  Frears’ film, scripted by Nicholas Martin, finds precious little empathy for its central character, and revels in the awkward and limited pleasure of watching a silly diva mocked behind her back. None of Streep’s intentionally shrill vocal antics are as jarring as the film’s lazy screenplay or choppy editing. And the attempt to tie Jenkins’s steadfast belief in herself to the can-do spirit of wartime America during the last years of her life rings as flat as her high C.  I have no idea how the Carnegie Hall concert this picture builds up to actually went down, but I’m sure it looked nothing like this ridiculous attempt to recreate it.