Florence Foster Jenkins was a real woman, a patroness of the arts who supported almost all of New York’s musical endeavours and dedicated her life to her passion, singing. She was instructed by leading maestros and had orchestras and composers at her beck and call – her generous donations made sure of that.
Just one tiny hiccup: she couldn’t sing to save her life. Her singing was not unlike a dying squirrel’s trying to evacuate a burning building. Horrendous. But she had no flipping idea. Meryl Streep plays Florence with gusto. We all know Meryl can sing: she’s been in Mama Mia and Into The Woods. She’s got pipes. But in this movie she manages to unabashedly sound like someone took a hacksaw to those pipes and stuffed them full of gasoline-soaked rags. It’s stupendous. Her caterwauling never fails to get a laugh and it was amazing to me how long she could sustain that, how funny she could make the same joke, in slightly different, gutsy ways.
Hugh Grant plays Florence’s husband, St Clair, the man behind the “talent” who applauds her every croak and covers up the critics. Their love is tender but their relationship unique. It’s unusual to see a marriage so complex and interesting portrayed without judgement. Simon Helberg plays Mr. McMoon, the man engaged to be her accompanist. An able pianist, he struggles to attach his rising star to her pitiful performances, but it’s amazing how far money and connections will get you. Helberg, nearly unknown to me, creates a memorable character of his own in the shadow of two much bigger leads, but he manages to earn his own laughs and distinguish himself.
Meryl Streep is an absolute star and she’ll be a big part of why you love this movie. She finds nuance in her tuneless moaning and clinches the laugh time and time again. I couldn’t help it, not that I must wanted to. And Hugh Grant is charming as ever, and dare I say, reaching beyond his usual repertoire to be worthy of The Streep. It works. They have a distinct, affectionate chemistry that you want to be a part of. Director Stephen Frears knows how to tell a sympathetic story without disempowering anyone.
I thought a lot about the American Idol contestants purposely selected for their awfulness so that we may bond in our mockery of them. Florence Foster Jenkins was a 1940s era William Hung. No one has ever had the courage or the temerity to tell her she’s bad, and so she persists, believing that she’s good. Maybe even great. But Streep pulls it off infectiously, plays delusional faith in herself with sweetness and not inconsiderable vulnerability. And yet we anticipate her humiliation. Will she ever find out the truth? And who among us will be most devastated?
In truth, this film may not have a lot of staying power, unlike the lady herself who is remembered these 75 years later. She lived authentically, and those who loved her told the Good Lie. I was touched. Frears is careful to avoid cruelty, pushing the bounds of mockery and sincerity without ever overstepping, and so wins our respect. And frankly, so does Florence.