Comedy can be a tough gig, even for Hollywood’s finest (just ask Robert De Niro). Nevertheless Meryl Streep has balanced comedic roles with more serious fare in recent years and, as with most things she does, made it look effortless. Her latest is based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress in the 40s with ambitions to be an opera singer. The only trouble is her voice is terrible. Indulged by her supportive husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and incredulous new pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), she finds a small following made up of gawpers and those genuinely inspired by her passion. Trouble brews when Jenkins, who believes she is a genuinely good singer, hires Carnegie Hall for an army benefit concert.
Like the lady herself, this film just wants to entertain, revelling in the inherent humour of a tone-deaf woman becoming an opera cult hit, and the humour is supplemented by a tender message about the pursuit of one’s dreams. It’s generously layered in sentiment, but told with an enthusiasm that becomes infectious. The laughs are given substance by subtle, surprising moments of drama, such as the complex relationship between Streep and Grant’s characters, or the medical secret that haunts Jenkins.
After last year’s indifferent Ricki and The Flash, and an over-hyped cameo in Suffragette, Streep is back in a role that showcases just how wonderful she can be. A mixture of energetic warmth and endearing fragility, she melds wonderfully with Grant, who is perfectly placed as her husband-cum-fixer.
While it ends much as you would expect, the emotional final act is a lot more affecting than the light, screwball trailer suggests. While everyone gets the joke, Frears makes sure his film never mocks Jenkins, but instead instills the fondness many of the singer’s fans felt for her. Delivering the same feel-good pay-off of films such as The Lady In The Van or The King’s Speech, Florence Foster Jenkins steers clear of schmaltz and becomes an eccentric delight.
(PG) Dir. Stephen Frears | ★★★★☆