Florence Foster Jenkins

May 6, 2016
Meryl Streep in 'Florence Foster Jenkins' (2016)
Meryl Streep in 'Florence Foster Jenkins' (2016)

Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) entered my consciousness in the early 1990s when I first heard her rendition of the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute. This shrieking, tuneless performance of one of the most challenging pieces in the soprano’s repertoire is the stuff of high comedy. In 2003 Naxos issued an album of Jenkins’s complete recordings called Murder on the High Cs.

It’s so terrible one can hardly believe Jenkins was serious – but she was. Besotted by music, this wealthy New York socialite had become convinced she was a great singer. Those who were closest to her supported the delusion, partly through not wanting to hurt her feelings, but largely because they were benefiting from her open-handedness.

Chief beneficiary was her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a failed Shakespearean actor who entered into a sexless marriage with Jenkins in 1909, the same year she inherited her fortune. The reason their union was never consummated was that Jenkins had contracted syphilis from her first husband, Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins, a compulsive womaniser.

We can only speculate as to whether Jenkins’s delusions were influenced by her illness, let alone by treatments of arsenic and mercury. Neither can we be sure of the true nature of her relationship with Bayfield, which lasted until her death.

Filmmakers are usually happy to rework a subject’s biography to suit their own requirements, and there are enough grey areas in Jenkins’s life to allow director, Stephen Frears, and writer, Nicholas Martin, to play it as they please. Meryl Streep is let loose in the title role – another larger-than-life character to add to her portrayals of Margaret Thatcher, Emmeline Pankhurst and Julia Child.

The pivotal role of Bayfield is given to a born-again Hugh Grant, who has finally graduated from the painful stereotype of the diffident young Englishman. In this incarnation Grant is a sly old dog who divides his time between his beloved wife and a young mistress (Rebecca Ferguson), to whom he repairs when Florence is put to bed.

Bayfield is a charlatan but not a villain. Conscious of his own shortcomings as an actor he strives to shield Jenkins from the awful realisation of her lack of talent. He is not motivated solely by opportunism, but by a genuine sympathy and affection.

This state is replicated, in greater or lesser degrees, by most of the characters in this film. It applies to Carlo Edwards (David Haig), conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, who acts as Jenkins’s voice coach and showers her with praise. It is true of Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh), who comes fawning in search of cash donations. It is entirely true of her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg from TV’s Big Bang Theory), who overcomes his initial shock and learns to love his imperious, talentless employer.

It seems the only one not won over by Jenkins’s charm, or the lavish bribes doled out by Bayfield, is music critic, Earl Wilson (Christian McKay), who is barred from her musical soirées until the grand finale. This arrives as a firestorm of folly and hubris, when Jenkins decides to perform a concert at Carnegie Hall in honour of the armed forces. It was moment of catharsis from which she would never recover.

The story has the makings of a great opera buffa, but Frears keeps everything at the level of a tele-movie. The narrative is brisk, the dialogue generally good, the sets and costumes convincing, the acting spirited – but the film remains plodding and sentimental. It’s a highly professional piece of work but rarely inspired: a caveat that might be applied to most of Frears’s efforts over the past decade. He is a director who has exchanged artistry for productivity, and seems to turn out movies with industrial proficiency.

Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite, the other movie-of-the-moment based on the life of Foster Jenkins, is a more stylish and imaginative proposition. Although Giannoli’s film is far from perfect, he takes more chances than Frears, with a story that examines the temper of the times, not simply the eccentricities of one errant soprano.

Florence Foster Jenkins is an entertaining but superficial film that asks a single big question: “Is there anything wrong with allowing a wealthy woman to nurture a harmless delusion?” Everything conspires to have us respond: “No! A thousand times, no!”

Wilson, the unbribable critic, is portrayed as a nasty, humourless prig, but Jenkins’s career was only allowed to progress as far as it did because of the moral turpitude of those dependent on her cash. What might be intrepreted as expediency is dressed up as compassion. It’s a disguise as dubious as the angel wings Florence wears on stage.

Florence Foster Jenkins
Directed by Stephen Frears,
Written by Nicholas Martin
Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, David Haig, Christian McKay
UK/France, rated PG, 110 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 7th May, 2016.