Mention the name Florence Foster Jenkins and you will no doubt be met with a blank stare but in America she is a much loved and familiar figure. Now the situation looks like being rectified by Stephen Frears's witty and moving new film entitled simply Florence Foster Jenkins (released nationwide on Friday 6 May 2016) which tells the inspirational story of the eponymous New York Heiress who obsessively pursued her dream of becoming a great opera singer.
The film follows the life of the famously tone-deaf soprano who attracted much attention throughout her career, much for the wrong reasons. Upon turning her ear to the vocal side of music, her husband and manager St Clair Bayfield is determined to protect her from the truthful and hilarious nature of her performances. Until now, Bayfield's job has been relatively easy, as Jenkins's status as a socialite meant that the large crowds at performances (Cole Porter was apparently a fan) were mostly by invitation only excluding professional critics and the press.
Aged 76, even her kind-hearted husband can't keep her from yielding to public demand as she agrees to perform at none other than Carnegie Hall. With tickets selling out months in advance, Jenkins's limited vocal range is about to be projected onto the biggest audience of her career.
Whatever else can be said about Florence's singing which at times bordered on an ostrich-like shriek, she certainly brought joy to countless people in the depths of wartime – the film begins in 1944 – and her records became instant collectors items, with the generous Florence giving two dollars from every ticket sale from her sold-out concerts to charity. "People may say I can't sing but no one can ever say I didn't sing," she quips at one point.
The tone here is very different from Xavier Giannoli's recent Marguerite another film inspired by Jenkins's life and music, as it is warm and engaging and, as well as looking great, the period atmosphere is strongly conveyed.
But what really makes the movie stand out is an excellent central performance by Meryl Streep who plays Florence in late middle-age as she approaches the concert performances of her life – at Carnegie Hall. It is a performance full of gusto that skillfully combines humour and pathos, so that we really care about her fate. Hugh Grant, in one of his best roles, is perfect as her indulgent partner, a mediocre Shakespearean actor called St Clair Bayfield and his performance is genuinely touching, tender and devoid of cynicism. Also impressive is Simon Hellberg, from The Big Bang Theory, as her long-suffering piano accompanist.
There is no doubt, though that the film belongs to Meryl Streep and I bet that come Oscar time next year, she will be well in the running.
Florence Foster Jenkins
Released nationwide on Friday 6 May 2016Last modified: April 29, 2016