Is true love to be honest with the terrible truth or to shield a loved one from ridicule? Marguerite may have beaten Florence Foster Jenkins to the punch (released in the IFI last month) but Stephen Frears's similar film, his based on a true story, is still entertains thanks to the terrific turns from the three central performances.
1940s New York and Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is an heiress and patron of the Verdi, a well-to-do Manhattan club, for twenty five years with her husband, former actor St. Clair Bayfield (Grant). But now she longs to step into the limelight as an opera singer. The only thing is, she can't sing a note and, much to hired pianist Cosme McMoon's (Helberg) amusement, this is an open secret. Even famed voice coach Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) goes along with it, calling her voice 'authentic' and 'nothing else like it'. As they prepare for Carnegie Hall, Bayfield scurries about town shielding Florence from the laughers and ensuring her performances get rave reviews.
Avoiding the cruelty of Marguerite, Frears's film is light and bubbly throughout and yet there's always the terribly depressing notion bubbling away underneath: what if that thing you live your life for you have little talent at? Frears doesn't wholly embrace this and, unlike Margeurite, doesn't ask if her husband is doing this out of love or because she funds his lifestyle. Bayfield (a wonderful Grant) has genuine affection for Florence but while their sexless marriage may be a result of her syphilis there isn’t any sexual chemistry between them; he has an open affair (with Rebecca Ferguson) and uses his wife's public appearances to feed his own ego with over the top Shakespeare soliloquies. But the film is having far too much fun to really get under the fingernails of all that.
And that fun is down to Streep, playing Jenkins a notch below her Julia Child from Julia & Julia. Beginning with an entrance that sees her lowered onto stage by struggling stagehands, Streep is a hoot throughout as she attempts to hit those high notes. But yet she ensures Florence keeps her dignity: she may induce howls of laughter from her audience but "The lady has courage and that is why we love her" sums up why she stops short of being a laughing stock for the film's audience. Helberg's performance, with his soft voice and rigid shoulders, demands as much attention: his McMoon is really our journey through this – at first he finds Jenkins' lack of talent hilarious, but then warms to this kindly woman and, like Bayfield, does what he can to protect her. And if he can't protect her, then he's going on stage and take the stick by her come what may.
Florence Foster Jenkins will tickle the funny bone and warm the cockles.