“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent” – Victor Hugo
Florence Foster Jenkins is a biopic from director Stephen Frears that allows the three main actors to show off their incredible talents, lifting the quality of the film by leaps and bounds. You will enjoy the film even as you cringe at the truly awful singing you will hear.
Meryl Streep plays the title role with her usual brilliance. Few actresses ever have had her ability to bring a character (real or fictional) to life on screen the way she does. Since we’ve seen her sing well in Mamma Mia, Ricki and the Flash and Postcards from the Edge (to name just a few), taking on a role where she would have to sing in a truly awful fashion had to be a challenge. They may be off-key, flat and truly frightening notes, but she nails all of them.
Born in the late 1860s, Florence Foster married Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins while still in her teen years. She left him a year later and wound up in New York. There she met and married St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) who was an actor. He became her manager and she eventually opened The Verdi Club in order to stage Tableau Vivants in which she invariably portrayed a major role in the climatic scene. Thanks to the meticulous planning of St. Clair, only “true fans of music” attend these events and the reviews that appear in the New York press are always quite favorable.
When Florence decides to go back to taking vocal lessons, she must have a new accompanist. Enter Cosme Moon (Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg whose casting was an inspired choice because of his comic chops and superb musical ability) who Florence is immediately fond of. While aghast at her complete lack of musical talents, he is willing to accompany her since doing so pays very well.
But all is not as it seems. Florence has a secret from her past and St. Clair may be married to her, but he shares a different home with Kathleen Weatherly (Rebecca Ferguson). The charade regarding Florence’s musical abilities is nearly blown at a performance by Agnes Stark (Nina Arianda), the new wife of a long-standing patron of Florence’s music. She has a spectacular dance scene with Hugh Grant during a post-performance party at St. Clair’s home.
Florence decides to make a recording of her music and when it begins to receive play on the NBC radio network, she decides to book a performance at Carnegie Hall. Because she is an ardent supporter of the war (it’s 1944 while most of the film takes place) she gives 1,000 tickets to military personnel.
Meryl Streep has 19 Academy Award nominations and 3 Awards and finding new adjectives to describe how wonderfully she acts may be more challenging than her off-key singing was for her. This may well be the best performance of Hugh Grant’s career. But Simon Helberg outshines every other member of the cast. I’m not just saying this because I worked at the institution where he was a student during Middle and High School. He comes from an entertainment industry family but I had no idea just how talented he is until I saw this film.
The story sags in a few places and a moralistic audience might look askance at the life St. Clair Bayfield leads. Ms Streep’s singing will torture your ears and warm your heart all at once.