‘Florence Foster Jenkins” is a fairy tale of glorious optimism and unclouded love. The titular lady (a real-life New York heiress and socialite during the 1940s) goes chasing after her dream of becoming an opera singer with a mountain of passion but zero talent. To say that Florence (played by the ever-brilliant Meryl Streep) can’t sing is an understatement of monumental proportions. The lady has a lifelong love of music and insists at every turn that she can’t live without it, yet her ear completely fails her when it comes to catching her own tone-deafness.
But Florence is a lovely person: generous, exuberant and funny in an era when women rarely had the opportunity to be funny. It’s easy to see why her younger almost-husband (they keep separate apartments), a British national with the luxuriously aristocratic name of St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) — adores her. He also goes to great lengths to protect her from malicious gossip or anything less than the highest praise. Bayfield even pays off music critics (OK, it’s actually Florence’s money, but his intentions are gold!) to write rave reviews of her private performances, which she gives in the living room of her resplendent Manhattan apartment.
The movie is set in 1944, with the United States in the grip of World War II. With no public money to fund the arts but everyone needing their spirits lifted, Florence feels that it’s up to her to keep the flame of good music alive. She does so by regularly donating huge sums of cash to orchestras and conductors and almost anyone who calls himself “maestro.” Then, much to the consternation of Bayfield, Florence decides this would be a fine time for her to wow the crowd at Carnegie Hall.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||111 mins|
Bayfield procures peppy piano accompanist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) to work with Florence, but after hearing her sing, Cosme turns into the world’s most reluctant piano player.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” may not be a masterpiece but it showcases the seasoned talents of Streep, Grant and director Stephen Frears, seemingly at a point when they’re all relaxed about doing what they do best. Grant especially, seems to be having the time of his life, liberated at long last from having to be the irresistible heartthrob or heartless womanizer, or both at the same time. His Bayfield is an excellent, excellent husband (yes, it needs to be said twice) and his performance seems to channel both Stanley Tucci as Paul Child in “Julie and Julia” and Prince Phillip, the admirable hubby of Queen Elizabeth II.
Frears is probably one of the most solidly reliable filmmakers working in Hollywood today — with a special sympathetic gaze for older women who find themselves in vulnerable situations (see “The Queen” and “Philomena”). As for Streep, this is the second film in a year that places her on a stage and singing her heart out. In “Ricki and the Flash”(2015) Streep played a rock ‘n’ roller who could carry off leather jackets and skin-tight jeans, just like Florence wore her tiaras and evening gowns as if she had been born wearing them.
Streep’s versatility is astonishing, and so is the sheer range of her vocal cords, be it singing a throaty cover of Tom Petty as Ricki, or a terrible falsetto rendition of “Oh Susannah” as Florence. In her performance here Streep doesn’t miss a single note.
As depicted in the movie, Florence had battled syphilis and was in pain most of her waking hours and it was unlikely that she had any physical relations with Bayfield. Yet she was touchingly trustful of him and boundlessly cheerful. Was she really so completely unaware of her inability to carry a tune or did she forge on because she didn’t want to worry Bayfield? The way Frears tells it, it could have been both.
No one could accuse Florence of mediocrity. She may have been an extraordinarily bad singer, but what is more important is that she was an extraordinary woman. As for her concert at Carnegie Hall, you’ll have to hear it to believe it. Personally, I needed two hankies for this movie.