Meryl Streep in a scene from the movie Florence Foster Jenkins.
Meryl Streep in a scene from the movie Florence Foster Jenkins. Photo Credit: Nick Wall

Florence Foster Jenkins: Hitting the wrong note

STEPHEN Frears' new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, explores a very peculiar tale in musical history; of one of its ultimate underdogs, transformed in the confident hands of Academy Award-winner Meryl Streep into most lovely of tributes to the purity of naiveté and to the validity of the wildest of aspirations.

"It's about a love for music; but a love of life, I guess, even more," star Simon Helberg beautifully summarises.

Born Narcissa Florence Foster, the film's titular dame was daughter to one of Pennsylvania's most prominent lawyers and bankers; yet dreamed only of arias and of lieder. Of Mozart, Verdi, and Brahms.

Her vast wealth afforded those ambitions; it allowed her to stand on stage, wrapped in tulle and tinsel, bearing huge gold wings while declaring herself the "Angel of Inspiration". Nothing would dampen these pursuits, not even author Stephen Pile's declaration that she was "the world's worst opera singer".

Call it ironic delight, but Florence somehow managed to acquire quite a monumental audience in her time. Performing in New York City in the closing years of the Second World War, her blissful lack of self-awareness may have proved a much needed morale boost, especially at a time when even the arts scene had come under ration. Indeed, Cole Porter reportedly never missed a concert of hers, even going so far as to compose a piece especially for her.

Yet, wealth is the creator of islands; it shipwrecks the privileged as to isolate them in their own taffeta-lined delusions.

Florence was a woman so shrouded in her own wealth that the derisive laughter of her audiences mutated into applause in her own ears.

Though light and comic in its tone, Frears' treatment of Florence's life poses a much deeper question here: is she to blame for her own delusions? Were they the product of misdirected kindness from those who loved her? Or worse, the drive of sycophancy?

Florence was birthed in love with music; receiving piano lessons as a child, but deemed as worth nothing more by her parents. Her long-time piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon (played by Helberg in the film) claims it was due to the "excruciating quality of her voice." Florence would likely rather have dismissed her lack of support as the usual trials and struggles of the great artiste.

By 1908, she had met St Clair Bayfield (played onscreen by Hugh Grant): a stage actor who promised the 'in' with New York's theatre society. Florence's real 'in', however, was her wealth; her mother's death in 1928 made her the sole heir to her family's considerable fortune, and opened the doors to her future self-made notoriety.

Initially faced only with an onslaught of criticism; her voice sharp, pitchy, and largely unbearable to the human ear, she took to staging her own recitals. Furthermore, she actively placed herself in the centre of the city's cultural lifeblood; chairing the Euterpe Club's yearly living tableaux events, serving as president of the American League of Pen Women, and founding the Verdi Club seen at the opening of Frears' film.

Florence's big moment and the climax of Frears' film, however, saw her grace the stage of the legendary Carnegie Hall - at her expense, of course. On October 25, 1944, Florence performed all of her most beloved selections in what is said to be the fastest sold-out concert in the hall's history; with fans eagerly forking out $20 to scalpers for the $2 tickets. It had sold out even than Sinatra faster, Streep's own Florence so enthusiastically declares; with 2000 turned away at the door.

It's as if Florence's soul knew she had been enshrined in musical history with that performance; a month and one day after her performance, she suffered a heart attack and passed away at her residence in the Hotel Seymour.

Florence Foster Jenkins opens on Thursday.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Helberg.

Director: Stephen Frears

Rating: PG

Reviewer's last word: Meryl Streep is brilliant in this gentle comedy about a wealthy heiress who pursues a career as an opera singer despite her lack of talent.


Hugh Grant in a scene from the movie Florence Foster Jenkins. Supplied by Entertainment One Films.
Hugh Grant in a scene from the movie Florence Foster Jenkins. Supplied by Entertainment One Films. Photo Credit: Nick Wall

Star profile: Hugh Grant

Quirky fact: Has long wanted to make a film about his grandfather's real life escape from a prisoner of war camp during the Second World War.

Best known for: Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones's Diary.

If you like this movie you'll like these: All About Eve, Ricki and the Flash, One More Time.

Quote: "I could do with more mobbing, particularly from women. I'd like to be treated like Ricky Martin."

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