Florence Foster Jenkins (4 stars)

Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep is typically divine as the socialite singer who became a legend for all the wrong reasons

Listening to any less-than-brilliant soprano screech her way through Mozart’s insane ‘Queen of the Night’s Aria’ can set teeth vibrating. Hearing the obliviously awful Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) perform it as if possessed by a tortured cat makes hairs stand on end, while toes curl and unfurl uncontrollably like a paper party blower. After years of reminding us she can really, really sing, Streep throws herself endearingly into the role of Florence, a wealthy, cultured New York socialite and arts patron whose enthusiastic amateur recitals in the 1940s made her a ridiculous legend.

This could be utterly tragic – especially when the causes for one-time child musical prodigy Florence’s estrangement from tone, pitch, rhythm and reason are revealed – and one worries it will become too cruelly, hysterically comical. Delightfully, in the hands of director Stephen Frears it is a confident balance of uproarious laughs and genuine pathos, a lively, colourful, tender (and beautifully dressed) celebration of crazy dreamers and love.

Florence is shielded by her handsomer, younger consort – the devoted if philandering St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) – and egged on by sycophants and expensive enablers; she has a dream you see – to sing at Carnegie Hall – and the means to make it happen, even if it kills her. Streep, it almost goes without saying, is priceless. Grant, too, is wonderful as the debonair, second-rate Shakespearean thespian who has made it his mission, however exhausting, to make Florence happy. The bonus is a sensational Simon Helberg (Howard from The Big Bang Theory), showing mastery of comic timing and a sweet heart on his sleeve as the eager pianist who becomes Florence’s loyal, caring but mortified accompanist. Rebecca Ferguson, on the other hand, is comparatively meh as Bayfield’s demanding mistress. However, there are scads of well drawn characters in a vivid picture of wartime New York’s class and cultural melting pot, like brassy showgirl Agnes (Nina Arianda), who becomes a surprising champion for the painfully untalented but gloriously game Madam Florence.

General release from Fri 6 May.

Florence Foster Jenkins

  • 4 stars
  • 2016
  • UK
  • 1h 50min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Stephen Frears
  • Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg
  • UK release: 6 May 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a wealthy, cultured New York socialite, who insists on performing as a soprano in spite of a total inability to sing. Streep throws herself endearingly into the role, Grant is wonderful as her debonair husband and Frears keeps a confident balance of uproarious laughs and genuine pathos.