Film Review: Meryl Streep in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

Meryl Streep sings — sort of — for her supper in Stephen Frears' marshmallowy biopic of the famously inept soprano.

Florence Foster Jenkins
Courtesy of Paramount

The show’s not over ’til the flat lady sings in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” Stephen Frears’ bright, bubbly and suitably ear-bursting biopic of surely the least gifted chanteuse ever to sell out Carnegie Hall. She sings rather early on, however, leaving Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin with few dramatic or comedic cards to play for the pic’s remaining 90 minutes — beyond the admittedly delicious spectacle of the ever-game Meryl Streep taking a musical meat cleaver to respectable operetta. Less rich and less rounded than “Marguerite,” the recent French arthouse hit drawn from Jenkins’ story, this good-humored confection — slyly fashioned as a reproach to more discerning culture critics — will nonetheless strike a chord with auds who thrilled to Streep’s comparably high-camp impersonation of Julia Child. Seventy-two years after her passing, expect Jenkins’ name to sell out a few more theaters from beyond the grave.

While Frears’ film hits theaters in Blighty this spring, U.S. viewers must wait until the tail end of summer — narrowly preceding the fall-fest influx of prestige fare, though presumably with an eye to launching Streep in the awards derby. Tickled as Jenkins no doubt would have been by such gilded possibilities, “Florence Foster Jenkins” is an audience picture first and foremost: one wholly sympathetic to its eponymous subject’s delusional drive to delight crowds with or without the requisite artistry. Where “Marguerite” wryly satirized the class privilege and bourgeois obsequiousness that enabled the celebrity of its fictionalized protagonist, “Jenkins” goes distinctly easy on her addled vanity, and even on the moneyed manipulations of St. Clair Bayfield (a top-form Hugh Grant), her craftier husband and manager.

Rather, Martin’s fast-and-loose script reserves most of its animus for anyone attempting to halt the tone-deaf diva’s progress through the concert-hall of 1940s Manhattan — making a toxic villain of New York Post critic Earl Wilson (a flamboyantly sneering Christian McKay), who dared to suggest her throttled-nightingale trill was, well, for the birds. Is buying acclaim morally acceptable if audience and performer alike are enjoying themselves? Is it charitable or cruelly condescending to applaud heartfelt ineptitude in a spirit of gleeful irony? These are questions with which the film, perhaps inadvertently, leaves viewers, though it’s having far too much fun with her to address them: Rather like Jenkins’ own cronies, the filmmakers are tamed into submission by her gauche gusto.

And why wouldn’t they be, when said gusto is filtered through the indefatigable performing presence of Streep? Once hailed as American cinema’s most meticulous thespian technician, the 19-time Oscar nominee has, if not at any cost to her eerie knack for verisimilitude, broadened into something of a high-volume barnstormer: Whether playing Margaret Thatcher or “Mamma Mia!,” her latter-day work is largely defined by its vivid, palpable eagerness to entertain. And while some have complained that Streep has a monopoly on plum screen roles for women her age, that very rafter-reaching enthusiasm makes her an ideal fit for Jenkins, even if incompetence can hardly come easily to her. (Viewers should know well by now that the star can more than capably hold a tune.) Streep certainly has a ball mimicking the scarcely human strangulations of Jenkins’ vocal technique, though her characterization skates graciously shy of belittling burlesque: There’s an empathetic ardor for performance at work here, one that deftly coaxes even bewildered viewers into her corner.

Frears gifts his star — with whom he has somehow never before collaborated, despite their mutually productive, down-for-whatever work ethic — with a dream of a movie-star entrance, as she’s lowered haphazardly from the ceiling in Jenkins’ signature tinselly angel wings and a torrent of beige chiffon. She’s introduced as the climactic star of a ropey supper-club variety show directed by St. Clair, a failed Shakespearean actor more aware than his wife of his creative shortcomings. He’s also sufficiently protective of what might kindly be termed Jenkins’ unorthodox talent to curb her vocal contributions to the show, though when she bullishly insists on staging a solo concert, he’s quick to her aid, lavishly bribing Metropolitan Opera conductor Carlo Edwards (David Haig) to act as her fawning vocal coach, and hiring baffled young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, contributing his deft brand of dumbstruck aggravation from TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”) to accompany her tortured warbling.

Money, it turns out, may not buy you talent, but it can buy you a one-way illusion of it, as St. Clair wheedlingly selects and buys off appreciative high-society audiences, including a handful of hack critics for good measure. However, when a recording of one of her songs accidentally hits the radio airwaves — rapidly gaining in gobsmacked popularity, in what might be deemed the midcentury equivalent of going viral — the illusion becomes harder to control. Thanks to Grant’s spry, slippery turn, St. Clair might just be a more compelling character than his hilarious spouse: Whether he’s genuinely tricked himself into believing she deserves a platform, or whether his doting patronage is in fact the greatest performance of his own meagre career, is kept lithely in question throughout.

Their domestic relationship is likewise ambiguous. Though the marriage is rendered sexless by Jenkins’ long-term battle with syphilis — a detail the script presents with pleasing, smut-dodging sensitivity — there’s little evidence of physical connection between the two: To what degree Jenkins recognizes, or denies, her husband’s parallel relationship with bohemian beauty Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson, spiky but underused) isn’t easy to determine.

Such complexities are planted in the early going, yet peter out in the film’s fluffily padded second half, which is concerned mostly with Jenkins’ inflated presence as a performer — yielding repeated scenes of Streep in full, gloriously broken cry, but doing little to unpick what makes her tick so brazenly out of time. Escalating tension over a potential critical crucifixion by Wilson’s pen isn’t enough to fire up this wispy material, though there are pleasurable sideshows here and there — chief among them the splendid Nina Arianda, on incandescent Judy Holliday-esque form as a Brooklyn bimbo who becomes an improbable Jenkins champion. Stray scenes forge a tender bond between Jenkins and McMoon, abetted by Helberg’s put-upon, hangdog charm and the actor’s own impressive ivory-tickling, but finally don’t ring entirely true; any implication that Jenkins identified a kindred spirit in this awkward outsider conveniently ignores her exploitation of her elite social standing.

There again, “Florence Foster Jenkins” is best not scrutinized too closely — and luckily, Danny Cohen’s gleaming, high-key lensing and Alan Macdonald’s bustling, print-heavy production design give our eyes more than enough surface candy to consume while our ears are being comparatively assailed. (Alexandre Desplat’s score hardly gets a chance to make an impression between number after number of vigorous Streepscreeching.) While shooting, perhaps counter-intuitively, on widescreen, Frears’ mise-en-scene appears to subtly emulate the cluttered coziness of dinner-theater staging and styling, down to ornamental corner detailing over the closing credits — though editor Valerio Bonelli’s frequent screen-wipes might rep one cute touch too many. No one below the line, meanwhile, is enjoying themselves more than costume designer Consolata Boyle, who cloaks Streep in performance garb of chintztastic fabulousness, striking a balance between dowdy and diaphanous that is barely toned down for her fifty-shades-of-lavender daywear. It’s an appropriately subtle sartorial margin for a woman who, in her butterfly-filled head at least, was never off the stage.

Film Review: Meryl Streep in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

Reviewed at 20th Century Fox screening room, London, March 31, 2016. Running time: <strong>110 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (U.K.) A Paramount Pictures (in U.S.)/Pathe (in U.K.) release of a Pathe, BBC Films presentation of a Qwerty Films production. (International sales: Pathe International, Paris.) Produced by Michael Kuhn, Tracey Seaward. Executive producers, Cameron McCracken, Christine Langan, Malcolm Ritchie.
  • Crew: Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay, Nicholas Martin. Camera (color, widescreen), Danny Cohen; editor, Valerio Bonelli; music, Alexandre Desplat; music supervisor, Karen Elliott; production designer, Alan Macdonald; supervising art director, Patrick Rolfe; set decorator, Caroline Smith; costume designer, Consolata Boyle; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Lindsay; supervising sound editors, Becki Ponting, Ian Wilson; re-recording mixers, Mike Dowson, Dafydd Archard; visual effects supervisor, Adam Gascoyne; visual effects, Union; stunt coordinators, Eunice Huthart, Jo McLaren; associate producers, Nicholas Martin, Nichola Martin; assistant director, George Walker; casting, Leo Davis, Lissy Holm, Kathleen Chopin.
  • With: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, David Haig, Brid Brennan, John Kavanagh, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, John Sessions.