Hollywood ’s most honoured actress, Meryl Streep, has more than met her match with France’s Catherine Frot in their latest roles.
Probably more by accident than design, both of their latest films are about the same person.
Many dozens of successful French films have been converted into Hollywood versions, with differing outcomes. But two films on the same subject coming out at the same time usually means commercial disaster.
If I hadn’t seen Marguerite on a Singapore Airlines flight, I would have heard of it. But the viewing gazumped Florence Foster Jenkins (Entertainment One), Streep’s version of a real-life New York socialite and music patron, who was celebrated for her dreadful singing voice.
The two films offer strong contrasts as well as differing entertainment value.
Director Stephen Frears’ version sticks closely to the known facts about Jenkins, who died aged 76 in 1944 one month after performing at Carnegie Hall.
Streep is starring in her second music-themed film in a row, having last year played a middle-aged “rock chick” in Ricky and the Flash, an underrated film that is more a drama of parental neglect than about drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
As Jenkins, she gets to overact and warble terribly, which sounds as hard to do in reality as it is on the ears.
By contrast, writer-director Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite is a much more ambitious effort that fictionalises Jenkins and backdates the setting to post-war Paris in the 1920s.
His heroine is named Marguerite Dumont, a no-doubt-intended resemblance to the foil of many Marx Bros comedies.
Apart from their lack of talent and bent for self-promotion, both women are able to draw on a certain amount of empathy to attract sycophantic audiences to their salons.
Streep’s Jenkins has an attentive manager and partner, actor St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant looking his best in ages), who indulges her singing ambitions while cheating on her personally.
By contrast, Frot’s husband (André Marcon) does all he can to avoid his wife’s appearances and is a blatant philanderer. He keeps up appearances only because he needs her money as much as the artistic community does.
In this respect, the French version is much more nuanced in its build-up to the climactic solo concert and in the deceit of those who attend.
A couple of sub-plots involve the rise of a genuinely talented singer (Christa Theret) and a couple of young sponger-admirers, one a journalist and the other an anarchist.
A key character is an African butler (Denis Mpunga), who is Marguerite’s musical accompanist, protector and who — for his own ends — takes photographs of her wearing weird costumes and settings.
Marguerite also hires a faded opera star (Michel Fau) as a voice coach, who goes along with the pretence because he, too, needs the money.
Streep has far fewer characters and personal dramas to deal with, as Grant hovers continuously and her only other close relationship is with her loyal but always emotionally removed pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg).
This film is an entertaining introduction to the later life of Jenkins, but the wait for Marguerite is still worth it.
Rating: Parental guidance (coarse language); 110 minutes.