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Even at 67, Streep can still command the screen like few other actresses, and Florence Foster Jenkins gives her ample opportunity to strut her formidable stuff.

Not note-perfect but still an agreeably frothy bio

Sep 23, 2016 5:50 AM

WHEN you're a wealthy heiress with a passion for opera, a doting husband and a truly terrible singing voice, performing in Carnegie Hall isn't an impossible dream. Manhattan socialite Florence Foster Jenkins had a badly misplaced confidence in her singing skills but because she lived in a world of her own - devoid of unkind souls or cruel music critics - being tone-deaf somehow didn't matter.

Florence Foster Jenkins isn't note-perfect either but with Meryl Streep in the title role of a woman with hard-to-ignore musical shortcomings, even the singing scenes have a certain charm. At 67, the wrinkles on her face are more pronounced these days but Streep can still command the screen like few other actresses, and Florence Foster Jenkins gives her ample opportunity to strut her formidable stuff.

Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Nicholas Martin, this agreeably frothy bio takes Florence's side with undisguised pleasure, and we're happy to follow its lead.

Florence could easily have been an object of ridicule but because she evoked an enduring sincerity and thrived under the protective embrace of a husband who was dedicated to ensuring her happiness, she cuts a sympathetic figure instead.

"Ours is a very happy world," says St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, perfectly cast) by way of explanation to Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), who auditions for (and secures) the position of piano-playing accompanist to Florence. The year is 1944 and she's decided to brush up on her singing in preparation for a performance at the Verdi Club, the opera-lover's club she founded whose members are guaranteed to give her a friendly reception.

Cosmé, a musician with mousy looks and serious career ambitions, is first startled, then horrified when Florence starts to sing, because her voice bears some resemblance to a parrot being strangled. She's oblivious to this because St Clair goes to great lengths to keep her happy, paying off all and sundry - including her distinguished vocal coach (David Haig) - to keep the illusion going.

St Clair clearly adores his wife, but after he tucks her into bed each evening he heads to the house where his mistress Kathleen Weatherley (Rebecca Ferguson) resides. She provides him with the near-normalcy and physical intimacy that his wife can't - Florence contracted syphilis from her first husband and suffers continually from it.

For 25 years, St Clair has kept the mockers and the scoffers at bay, but then Florence - emboldened by the unexpected popularity of a recording she made for the Verdi Club - decides to hold a performance at Carnegie Hall and distribute the tickets to soldiers on home leave.

When St Clair spots an unkind soul in the audience in the form of a reviewer for the New York Post, the protective wall he's built so carefully around his "bunny rabbit" is suddenly threatened. His is a touching study in unbridled devotion.

Grant is a revelation in the role and the film's feel-good factor owes much to his nuanced performance, while Streep's interpretation of a deceptively complex character is painted in broader strokes.

"People can say I couldn't sing, but no one can say I didn't sing," says Florence near the end of the film. By the end of her life she had made an indelible mark on New York's cultural scene - though not in quite the way she intended. Music mattered deeply to her and in Florence Foster Jenkins, she gets to take her bow on the biggest stage.

Rating: B