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Fostering Florence

Florence Foster Jenkins, the 1940s Manhattan socialite and “world’s worst singer”, takes centre stage in a pair of films.

Florence Foster Jenkins, the 1940s Manhattan socialite and “world’s worst singer”, takes centre stage in a pair of films.

Studios sometimes get the sudden simultaneous itch to celebrate the life of an icon. 2005 was Truman Capote’s year, 2008 Coco Chanel’s. This year, it’s Jenkins’ turn, in both Stephen Frears’ biopic Florence Foster Jenkins and Ralf Pleger’s obligatory documentary The Florence Foster Jenkins Story.

Compared to Xavier Giannoli’s loose (and excellent) fictionalisation Marguerite, also released this year, Frears has taken a more comfortable and sweet-natured approach to the Norma Desmond-like diva. Buoyed by a trio of terrific turns from Meryl Streep, Simon Helberg and Hugh Grant, who delivers his finest performance to date, the director also treads a fine line: he allows you to laugh at the wealthy egoist but never mocks nor pities her socially enabled eccentricity, instead mirroring her sincerity and the high camp nature of her performance.

In contrast, Pleger’s sturdy documentary is a bit more of a chore. The filmmaker’s conventional execution, which includes some clumsy reenactments, doesn’t belong on the big screen. Instead, it would make a wonderful DVD extra to Frears’ work: it’ll make you doubly relish how accurately Streep has recreated every nuance of Jenkins’ eardrum-perforating squawks. Even when she’s doing something badly, it’s terrific.

The Florence Foster Jenkins Story | Directed by Ralf Pleger (Germany 2016) documentary. Starts November 10

Florence Foster Jenkins | Directed by Stephen Frears (UK 2016) with Meryl Streep. Starts November 24