It's Meryl Streep, right? So you can expect at least one faultless performance. Expect laughs well-sprinkled through the fairly disciplined run-time… but also something to please me, a cinema in which everyone was at least two decades my senior, and the exception to that rule - an accompanying friend who herself would never choose to watch 'that type of film'. But what is that 'type of film'?
The trailer would have you believe that this is a bit of a romp, a loose biopic about a wealthy New York patron of the arts who launches a late-life soprano career despite her entertaining lack of skill. True. But in showing the gap between Jenkins' internal musical rapture and the harsh, atonal reality, Stephen Frears' latest also functions as a sort of treatise on euphemism. From the artful encouragements of her well-paid vocal coach (David Haig) to the way her common-law husband curates the life she dreams of (Hugh Grant, acting at last!), FFJ asks that you enter the dream, rather than chuckle at a delusion.
Streep's generosity and skill help us do this, attracting more than sympathy as a thoroughgoing music-lover whose faculties may be deserting her. Very few living actors could play the role in this way; in her arias, she exhibits perfect comic timing, unpredictability, and the poise to execute masterful vocal feats of imperfection. Grant's performance is a minor revelation - it seems he hasn't been challenged professionally for a few years. He plays St. Clair Bayfield not as money-loving husband, adulterer or exploitative manager, but ultimately as a co-dreamer with Florence. So his use of euphemism is well-intentioned, as is his protection of their "happy world" – binning reviews, deciding whom to admit to their inner circle – though neither may be ultimately wise.
The use of music is great – pieces in the drama are well-chosen, often commenting on the characters or situations, such as a Chopin prelude in which her accompanist plays the harmonically rich left-hand part and FFJ takes a melody consisting largely of a two-note phrase which would sound facile alone. The script zips along, the movie breezes by and seems shorter than its 110 minutes.
Props to Simon Helberg, whose too-fragile-to-exist accompanist could easily grate, but produces laughs and somehow works as a gateway character. In the outdoor scenes, Liverpool masquerades as wartime NYC – it passes for it very well when we enter the dream. A laugh-fest, yes, but were it only that it would be at least a little exploitative – as it is, Loach shows that light entertainment can bear dramatic weight.