Released 2016. Director: Stephen Frears
IT'S A GOOD THING FLORENCE FLOSTER JENKINS doesn’t have to sing for her supper or she’ll be starving. According to the movie’s tagline, she’s the world’s worst singer. But how do you tell a woman who’s always dreamed of being an opera singer that her singing sucks?
As it turns out, those around her simply don’t utter the truth. Although Madam Florence’s vocal talent falls hilariously short of her passion, she fulfils her dream of singing at the Carnegie Hall. In the hands of Stephen Frears, this is a movie that is so well put together, with humour, heart and feelings, one would be rather churlish to look for anything bad to say about it.
It’s New York in 1944 and society heiress Madam Florence keeps up her lifelong support of music in the city with her contributions and patronage. Generous to a fault, Madam Florence gives of her money and her time and to anyone who asks. Vocal coaches and music conductors drop in unannounced, ostensibly to visit her or present a small gift, in return they always leave with a cheque but are nowhere near when she needs moral support. Florence is all give and no take.
Afflicted with syphilis from her late husband, Florence has a chaste relationship with her second husband, a younger man named St Clair Bayfield. Acting as Florence’s manager and protector, St Clair shields her from bad news and is not averse to bribery to achieve it. He indulges in Florence’s fantasy, which means allowing vultures to hang around because music makes her happy.
Struggling pianist Cosme McMoon (a splendid Simon Helberg) could not believe his luck when Florence picks him over applicants with Juilliard qualifications. His horror as Florence starts to sing is comic gold, and his uncontrollable fits of giggles is a moment made for a communal experience as the audiences burst out laughing along. We laugh, but we feel bad doing so. It’s also a testament to the assured direction by Frears, crafting delightful entertainment out of a balance of the comic and the tragic.
Cosme endures Madam Florence’s murderous renditions because he’s desperate for work and money, but he gradually learns to see his employer beyond her limitations and empathises with her. The pianist is the audience’s proxy as we come to root for the tone-deaf soprano and cheer her on.
To sing bad on cue takes skills and Meryl Streep nails it. Streep plumbs the role with gusto, holding her matronly figure while doing all the squealing, I mean singing, herself. It’s an unself-conscious, open-hearted performance that encapsulates Florence’s shrill vocal shortcomings as well as her tender and giving personality. When her audiences howl in laughter, Florence is not annoyed or angry but rather, she looks surprised in childlike incomprehension. When it comes to her singing, she doesn’t hear what everyone else hears. Streep brings poignant comedy to Florence’s delusion.
Hugh Grant gives possibly his best performance in a long time. As one half of an unconventional union, Grant convinces us that St Clair’s love for Florence is genuine. Theirs is not a monogamous relationship, but he always has her best interest at heart. St Clair has a double life, but Grant shows us where his heart lies.
Whilst Florence’s off-pitch singing makes us chuckle, this movie is a celebration of her life. A woman whose story we might very well never have known. A woman with really dreadful singing but in every other aspect warm and ridiculously kind. The sort of person who visits you at home and promptly does the dishes as if that’s the most natural thing in the world.
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