Movie reviews: Hugh Grant turns in career-best performance in the warm and funny Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins and The Neon Demon touch on the same theme - that making art is an incitement to violence

Not counting despots who write novels or make movies, few have lived a life protected from artistic criticism as Florence Foster Jenkins (PG, 111 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4/5 stars). She was a mid-20th century New York society lady whose wealth and status shielded her from discovering how terrible she was at doing the thing she loved - singing.

She was not simply mediocre in the karaoke-amateur sort of way, as most of us are. She was spectacularly, exquisitely off-key. Lady Jenkins, as she liked to be called, hit those sour notes hard.

Her story would make for a satire of the vanity of the rich. And in dramatising her life, director Stephen Frears (Philomena, 2013; The Queen, 2006) and screenwriter Nicholas Martin do make fun of her.

But only a little. The primary emotion in this warmly rendered and often funny comedy is affection, for the subject of this biopic and her peculiarly child-like way of seeing the world.

Elle Fanning (left) plays a model with otherworldly beauty in The Neon Demon.
Elle Fanning (above) plays a model with otherworldly beauty in The Neon Demon. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

The biopic takes one slice of her life in 1944. Emboldened by praise, Ms Foster (Meryl Streep) cuts a record and hires Carnegie Hall for an evening's recital, hoping to give soldiers fighting the war an evening's entertainment.

News of her shatteringly awful renditions of operatic classics cannot be confined to the indulgent upper crust any longer. For too long, she has been kept in blissful ignorance of how her singing is regarded by those who love her, including husband Bayfield (Hugh Grant, giving one of the best performances of his career) and accompanist Cosme (Simon Helberg).

With thousands expected to show up, the cat would be out of the bag, once and for all.

Streep offers a stunning performance as Foster. Laughably misguided one moment and heartbreakingly vulnerable the next, she plays her as a woman with delicate feelings, but cursed with the need to expose herself artistically.

Helberg is a treasure of physical comedy.  As her voice slides from one song to another, butchering each one with more gusto than the last, Helberg's highly expressive face - registering shock, horror and, finally, the sense of resignation that years of rigorous piano training have ended in ignominy - says everything the audience wants to say about her singing.

From a film about a woman with no talent, but living in a bubble of approval, to another about a woman whose natural beauty exposes her to all manner of harm.

The Neon Demon(M18, 117 minutes, opens next month, 3.5/5 stars) is the opposite of Florence Foster Jenkins. It is cold and artificial where Frears' film is warm and naturalistic.

While they could not be more different tonally, they deal with broadly the same theme - that making art is an incitement to violence. In Jenkins, a bad singer invites others to hurt her feelings, but in this film, the idea of violence is taken more literally.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an aspiring model in Los Angeles. She is just one among the throngs who arrive daily seeking stardom, but modelling insiders immediately grasp that she is special. They speak of her beauty in abstract terms, as if she were an alien or a goddess. Indeed, her arrival is marked by bizarre portents.  

But this is far from an examination of the beauty industry. Writer-director Nicholas Winding Refn (Only God Forgives, 2013; Drive, 2011) is a film-maker who cares deeply about morality, about the clash of right and wrong when an outsider's value system crashes into another, built on the tacit agreement of a larger group.

There is a semblance of a story, based on a lady-in-peril framework, but that is almost entirely secondary.

Refn is mostly interested in staging tableaux. In sequences that are as stark as they are beautiful, he arranges thin, leggy women in stylised but oddly asexual positions.

A current of danger runs under them, however. Jesse is too pure to be in a place run by wolves and these highly choreographed scenes end in a Cronenberg-style body-horror bit of ghoulishness. (Note: A short scene implying necrophilia has been removed to meet rating guidelines here.)

Refn might be making a selfish statement about artists and the philistines who run Hollywood and, at times, he drives his point home rather hard, but he makes up for that self-indulgence in the primal power of his images.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2016, with the headline 'Women standing in harm's way'. Print Edition | Subscribe