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Florence Foster Jenkins

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Stars Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

Stephen Frears’s new film is based on a true story, but one of the biggest compliments it can be paid is that you wouldn’t know it. The story is about an American amateur opera singer whose voice brought joy to millions in the depths of wartime, largely because she could turn even the most graceful coloratura soprano line into what could only be described as a contaminated aria. Foster Jenkins wasn’t famous because her singing sounded like a cat fighting a duck in a wheelie bin, but because she committed to it with the panache and depth of feeling of a peak-form Callas. Her records became instant collectors’ items, and her concerts sold out immediately.

Frears turns Foster Jenkins’s story into an Emperor’s New Clothes fable in reverse, in which everyone clocks exactly what’s going on, but realises that shouting out would only spoil the fun. It follows Florence (Meryl Streep) in late middle age as she approaches a life-capping Carnegie Hall gig, chivvied along by St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a modestly talented actor and her doting second husband. Streep plays Florence as a seamless hybrid of an excited schoolgirl: when she performs, she draws her elbows in close to her chest and occasionally twists very slightly from side to side, like the primary-school choirgirl who finally gets her moment in the spotlight. But Florence isn’t the film’s centre of gravity. That duty falls to St Clair, who treats her with a kind of grandfatherly affection, while shielding her from the odd sling or arrow that makes it over the ramparts. He’s in preposterously good form here, gliding through every scene with a lightness and wit that’s completely Fifties, and perfectly in keeping with the film’s presentation.

The couple’s relationship is sexless, She sleeps alone, and St. Clair keeps an apartment downtown with his mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). The arrangement puzzles Florence’s accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), but as St Clair points out, it works. Florence’s rehearsal scenes have a gently escalating ludicrousness about them that’s totally winning, and a sequence in which she ends up being grabbed from behind by her vocal coach (David Haig) and all but ridden into tune is hilarious. File it alongside The Queen and Philomena as the final chapter in Frears’s unofficial strong women trilogy: a delicious, finger-tingling comedy about the creative instinct that makes your heart want to squawk with joy.

Rated PG 8 out of 10