***1/2 (out of five)
I haven’t seen Marguerite, Xavier Giannoli’s film, still in cinemas, which tells a more fictionalised version of the same story, so I’m not sure how it plays, but screenwriter Nicholas Martin and veteran director Stephen Frears have pulled off a neat trick with the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins: they’ve made it the story of her husband.
Hugh Grant plays St Clair Bayfield, a not-successful actor married to very wealthy socialite Florence (Meryl Streep). It is 1944; she (and by association, he) is an extremely generous patron of the arts, including running her beloved Vivaldi Club, and music is her absolute passion. He loves her deeply, but also maintains a second life – in a second New York apartment – with a younger woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). In order to keep Florence happy, he must engage in various levels of deception. The easy level is Kathleen. The much harder task is maintaining for Florence the illusion that she is a good singer, which is difficult because not only is Florence a terrible singer, she insists on singing, and very publicly.
It’s tricky territory, because the story could be told in many ways, and some of them could be disastrous. If this were told as the story of a woman who couldn’t sing but insisted she could and humiliated herself publicly, we would, essentially, be turning up to laugh at her (as many did, and have continued to do over the decades, as she has left infamous recordings behind). It would be nasty and it would get old. And if it were told as the story of a woman with delusions of grandeur (and Florence was sick, in a way that almost certainly involved her mental capacities) it would simply be sad.
By making Bayfield the protagonist, Martin and Frears have given us, instead, a classic love story – the story of a man who loves his wife so much he’ll go to any lengths to protect her. James Marsh did it a couple of years ago with The Theory of Everything; you assumed you were going to see a story about Stephen Hawking, but you actually got a story about Jane Hawking, his wife, and all for the better. Florence is a slightly absurd, and certainly slightly sad, creature, but we get to see her through her husband’s eyes.
The tone, therefore, manages to stay buoyant and essentially comedic; some scenes are straight-out farce. Frears, whose body of work is astonishing in its diversity (his last film was The Program, about Lance Armstrong’s drug regimen) can seemingly direct anything, in any style; he absolutely understands who the audience for this film is, and he serves up exactly the right dish – the right ingredients in the right proportions. It’s never too heavy, it’s never too frivolous, and it never loses its focus as a love story.
Grant is absolutely wonderful. Bayfield – being a bit of a cad but a loveable one – is a natural extension of his career’s persona but there is a dignity and depth of heart that feels like an evolution. He’s ready to play middle-aged, and he does it smashingly. A Facebook Friend suggested that, having read the script, he could see Jim Broadbent in the role; that would’ve worked – indeed, been a natural move – but Grant is a surprising choice and one that really pays off. Streep is typically precise (and typically engaging) and Simon Helberg – who I thought was a plum discovery but whom I now realise is a massive TV star as part of the Big Bang Theory ensemble – is excellent as the brilliantly named Cosme McMoon, the pianist enlisted to accompany Florence throughout her annus horribilis yet mirabilis. Rebecca Ferguson, who made such an impact in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, brings a lot of colour to the film’s quietest part of “the Mistress”, Kathleen; her stardom is inevitable.
The trailer for the film suggests that, like the shore-leave soldiers invited to one of Florence’s performances, you should go along to giggle at some truly atrocious singing. Frears’ film, thankfully, tells a much better story than that.