Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, cinemas nationwide, 14th June

Whedon had a 12 day break after filming The Avengers, so what did he decide to do? Make a feature-length film of course! Filmed in black and white, Much Ado About Nothing unites the original Shakespearean language (spoken in American accents) with the modern day. Surprisingly, it has earned a reputation with critics as “the must-see film of the summer so far”, with one critic saying that “it ought not to work, but it does”. The film is released nationwide today.

Exhibition

Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace, V & A, 18th June- 20th October

Presented as a walk-in story at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Memory Palace brings a new fiction book by the author Hari Kunzru to life. It is visualised through a set of 20 commissions from a range of people including internationally renowned illustrators, graphic designers and typographers.  The exhibition opens on Tuesday and is open until Sunday 20th October.

Concert

Pet Shop Boys, The O2, 18th June

The internationally acclaimed Pet Shop Boys bring their Electric tour to London on Tuesday. This tour highlights the duo’s electronic music and style, but they will perform songs from across their entire career, up to and beyond their current album "Elysium", which has been received with much critical approbation.

TV

The White Queen, BBC 1, premieres 16th June

This 10-part remake of acclaimed author Phillipa Gregory’s series The Cousins’ War premieres on Sunday. It is set in 1664, around the time of the Wars of the Roses, in what has become a turbulent part of British history. Filmed in Bruges, the series tells the story of a woman by the name of Elizabeth Woodville, who was relatively unkown until Gregory brought her into the public eye. Following the success of the dramatisation of her novel The Other Boleyn Girl, fans and critics alike await The White Queen with much anticipation.

Festival

Meltdown Future Sounds 1: Baltic Fleet, The Clore Ballroom at Royal Festival Hall, 16th June 6:00pm

As part of the Festival of Neighbourhood and Meltdown at the South Bank centre, marking  Yoko Ono's long-standing support of young and emerging artists, Baltic Fleet will be making their first of two appearances tonight at 6pm. Baltic Fleet are described by Time Out as being “Modern post-punkish sombre pop that's both melodic and kraut-rocking', and they are the winners of the 2013 GIT Award. Entry is free for this event.

 

Joss Whedon's take on Shakespeare's "Much Ado" is a surprise hit with critics. Photograph: fastcocreate.com
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Florence Foster Jenkins shows the delight of love's delusions

This new film about a notoriously bad singer, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, is an unsually honest portrayal of how relationships work.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice is all very well. The real-life heiress and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) practised her whole life. “An hour a day!” she boasts in Stephen Frears’s marvellous film. “Sometimes two.” But it isn’t talent that enables her to reach that prestigious venue in 1944. She is wealthy enough to be able to hire it on a whim and to give away a thousand tickets to servicemen returning from the war. Some might wonder if those soldiers hadn’t suffered enough.

What packs the place to the rafters is her reputation. Florence is still known today as the world’s worst singer. Reaching for a note far beyond her range, she would launch herself at it in the manner of someone trying to dislodge a ball from a tree by lobbing a boot. It’s possible that some of the shrieks she emitted were audible only to dogs. The poor blighters.

In a clever, clinching decision by the screenwriter Nicholas Martin, it is Florence’s uxorious husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who provides the dominant point-of-view in the film. His glasses are not merely rose-tinted, but heart-shaped. The couple’s domestic arrangements may be unconventional – St Clair slinks off each night to see his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), at his own apartment, paid for by his wife. But it is with Florence that his true loyalties lie. He is a master at coaxing favourable reactions from those in her orbit. When the young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) comes to audition for Florence, the sound of her voice wipes the inno­cence from his eyes; he emerges from her drawing room with something resembling post-traumatic stress disorder. But St Clair conducts the young man’s reactions with a nod, a tilt of the head and a widening of the eyes to produce a response that will be broadly flattering to Florence.

In a rich and nuanced performance, Grant radiates warmth. He indicates to others the delighted expression he wants them to adopt for his wife by first adopting it himself, then watching them follow suit. Listening to a reporter filing copy over the phone about Florence’s concert, he makes his presence felt after hearing the phrase “appreciative applause”. The journalist hastily amends the adjective to “thunderous”. Contented, St Clair moves on.

It could be argued that the script deprives Florence of agency in her own story, so that she exists merely through her husband’s eyes. Then again, there is every danger that, without the prism of St Clair’s devotion through which to filter that story, Florence would have been left as cruelly exposed on the screen as she is when she takes to the stage. A similar insurance policy was taken out in Isn’t She Great, in which Bette Midler played the trash novelist Jacqueline Susann. Any scorn or snobbery from the audience was absorbed before it could reach Susann by the device of putting her husband, ­Irving, in charge of the storytelling. There was no question mark in that film’s title because it was rhetorical. Irving wasn’t asking.

It was to be expected that a director as humane as Frears would not mock his subject. What is magical is the way he modulates our reactions to Florence just as St Clair does on screen. We are still laughing when a recording of the real Florence Foster Jenkins is played over the end credits, but our laughter has become even warmer. The question of whether the title character is oblivious to her own flaws is left moot, as it was in the case of Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s film about the legendarily dreadful director. But then most of the people around her are harbouring delusions. Even St Clair isn’t entirely self-aware. The movie opens with him indulging his thespian tendencies with excruciating results. There is only one full scene in which he doesn’t appear but it’s an important one: Florence confides to Cosme that St Clair can’t act. It is her little secret.

This is an unusually honest portrayal of love as a system whereby two people can maintain one another’s delusions to the point where they almost cease to be delusions at all. If you don’t tell me I’m a prize ham, I’ll keep secretly replacing the champagne flutes that shatter when you practise your scales. That sort of thing. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred