Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Nina Arianda, Rebecca Ferguson
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Nicholas Martin
Advertised as “the inspiring true story of the world’s worst singer”, Florence Foster Jenkins struck me as a thematically similar film to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. This film took the life of a man who had garnered a reputation as the worst director of all time and found inspiration in it. Despite being utterly oblivious to his incapability as a filmmaker, the film showed that Ed had an intense passion and deep love for cinema that ended up proving irresistible to the audience. Like Burton, Frears finds inspiration in the story of an individual who found immense joy in doing what she loved, even if she wasn’t any good at it. However atonal or delusional this person could be, there is still something moving about her heartfelt sincerity and vigorous enthusiasm for music. This is the side of Florence that Frears wants us to see. He wanted to make a film in which we are laughing with Florence rather than at her.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is an heiress living in 1940s New York. Her greatest passion is music and her greatest dream is to be an opera singer. She performs concerts for her friends and colleagues and is uniformly received by them with praise and adoration. What she does not realise however is that they are all humouring her. Florence’s husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), himself an actor and fellow patron of the arts, sees to it that she never performs in front of an audience that he cannot control, thus allowing her to perform freely and openly without ever becoming aware of her terrible singing voice. We learn of this arrangement through the eyes of Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), a skilled but struggling pianist who gets paid handsomely for both his talent and discretion. As the United States is drawn further into the war at this time, Florence resolves to do her part by putting on a show for the troops at Carnegie Hall, a venue and audience that Bayfield desperately realises he cannot control.
In this day and age where TV shows like The X-Factor encourage us to mock and ridicule those without talent, I was astonished by what a touching film this proved to be. It makes no qualms about Florence’s singing abilities; she cannot hit a note to save her life. Her passion for music however is never in doubt. She owns a music club that showcases a variety of acts, she is massively generous when sponsoring musicians and she appreciates music on an intellectual and emotional level. It is after watching an opera performance where she is moved to tears that she realises she wants to express that passion by singing. Should it be a surprise then when Bayfield, who knows better than anyone else what singing means to her, utilises their wealth and influence to allow Florence her moment in the spotlight? The film takes its shots and has its fun with Florence’s tone-deaf screeching, but what is made plainly clear through it all is that she is singing her heart out with each melody and lyric.
After such a long and illustrious career it seems redundant to say this, but Meryl Streep is truly sublime in this film. Here she embodies an endearing but tragic figure who unwittingly became a subject of derision in pursuit of her dream. Streep delivers on both the laughs and tears and come awards season will surely receive her obligatory Oscar nomination for this performance. The real surprise for me was Hugh Grant who gave what is easily his best performance in years. At first we think we have this man figured out; he appears to be little more than an exploiter, allowing Florence her delusion so that he can enjoy her wealth while spending his nights with his mistress. Yet what becomes abundantly clear before long is that Bayfield both loves and adores Florence and is completely and utterly devoted to her. Although he may not desire her sexually, he proves time and time again that he truly does care for her and that he allows Florence her delusion because he wants her to be happy. It is an affectionate and sensitive performance that Grant delivers, one that I had never expected from him.
While Florence Foster Jenkins was a figure many dismissed as being laughable, spoiled and self-indulgent, Frears’ film is very much sympathetic to her cause. Although she may not possess the talent to voice her musical passion or the ability to hear her own shortcomings, the Florence in this film has a deep love for music that simply demands to be expressed. We might find amusement in her attempts at some of the most distinguished and difficult arias in the history of opera but, because we can feel her fervour so potently, we still root for her to do well. When she becomes the discreet subject of scorn and ridicule, we feel badly for her even though she is completely oblivious to such mockery. Florence Foster Jenkins is a film that is surprising in its earnest charm and heartfelt pathos, much like Florence herself.