FILM OF THE WEEK: Florence Foster Jenkins (PG) *****
Auditions for televised talent shows throw up a limitless supply of deluded wannabes, who refuse to let a lack of musicality or rhythm hamper their quest for pop superstardom.
Occasionally, these loveable misfits strike a chord because of their unfettered enthusiasm – witness the inexorable rise of The Cheeky Girls and Jedward.
Amateur operatic soprano Florence Foster Jenkins was one such endearing eccentric, who became a cause celebre in 1930s and 1940s New York precisely because she was unable to hold a note during her infamous recitals of Verdi, Brahms and Mozart.
Recordings of her caterwauling became collector’s items and her concerts were always sold out.
Jenkins brought joy to millions and remained convinced of her soaring abilities until her glorious end, aged 76.
This real-life story of triumph against sniggering cynicism provides rich inspiration for Stephen Frears’ rollicking comedy drama.
Anchored by tour-de-force performances from Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant that perfectly harmonise humour and pathos, Florence Foster Jenkins is an unabashedly joyful period piece that stands resolutely behind the eponymous socialite as she massacres the Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus or the Queen Of The Night aria from The Magic Flute.
As the heroine remarks, ‘People may say I couldn’t sing but no one can say I didn’t sing.’
Florence (Streep) is determined to further her musical ambitions with the help of her second husband and doting companion, St Clair (Grant).
‘I shall need a pianist. Someone young, someone with passion!’ declares Florence excitedly.
The couple audition several accompanists but they fail to meet Florence’s exacting standards.
‘He’s raping my ears. Make him stop!’ she pleads after one hopeful tinkles the ivories.
Cosme Moon (Simon Helberg) eventually lands the position of Florence’s pianist and his first experience of Florence in full voice is played for tear-streaming belly laughs by Frears.
The grand dame pays Cosme well and he gradually falls under his wealthy employer’s spell, acknowledging that she is just following her dream, like everyone else.
Vocal coach Carlo Edwards (David Haig) and venerated conductor Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) prepare Florence for a big concert at the world-famous Carnegie Hall.
However, St Clair worries that the stress of the forthcoming engagement is playing havoc with her faltering health.
‘What if it kills you?’ he frets.
‘Then I shall die happy,’ smiles Florence serenely.
Audiences will certainly die happy after watching Florence Foster Jenkins.
Streep is mesmerising, bringing tenderness and vulnerability to a role that could so easily have been played as a pitiful figure of mockery.
Grant is a wonderful comic foil and he demonstrates a light touch in moving scenes that remind us of his oft-ignored abilities as a dramatic actor.
Period design is impeccable and Frears builds to a rousing emotional crescendo worthy of one of Jenkins’ standing ovations.