Fortified with formidable talent, Meryl Streep adds a new role to her impressive resume: a well-to-do opera buff, though seemingly unaware of (or disregarding) her limited singing abilities, attracted admirers to recital and concert performances. One critic has observed her singing “so wretched, it was legendary.”
In 1940s New York, Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), a New York heiress, socialite, and patron of the arts, obsessively pursued her dream of becoming a great singer. The voice she heard in her head was beautiful, but to everyone else it was hilariously awful. Her “husband” and manager, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), an aristocratic English actor, was determined to protect his beloved Florence from the truth. But when the 76 year-old Florence decided to give a public concert at Carnegie Hall, St. Clair knew he faced his greatest challenge.
Rarely has the gap between ambition and execution been wider than in the singing of wanna-be diva heiress Florence Foster Jenkins. Clearly, she loves the operas of such composers as Mozart and Brahms, and she believes that her performances bring joy to listeners. Though a notable figure on the social scene in New York, FFJ has no clue that her screeching is just about intolerable (David Bowie put one of her records on his list of favourite albums.)
Fortunately, she has a protector in her husband, minor Shakespearean actor St. Clair Bayfield. All too aware of his wife’s vocal inadequacies, Bayfield uses his resources — financial and otherwise — to make sure that her audiences are respectful and her critics are kind. He has a reluctant accomplice in pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), who fears that accompanying Jenkins could do irrevocable damage to his reputation. Helberg’s perfomance is a spark that illuminates the thin line between his keyboard duty and possible career assassination.
Compliant younger husband (her second), Bayfield can’t control everyone. And that becomes a problem when Jenkins is scheduled to perform at a venue that renders her vulnerable to critical sniping: Carnegie Hall. His mission in life is to keep the ‘mockers and scoffers’ at bay, bribing audiences and paying off critics. He pampers and fusses over Florence, indulging her every whim, but comes unstuck when Florence dreams big: hiring Carnegie’s hallowed Hall in 1944. Particularly troubling to Bayfield is New York Post critic Earl Wilson, who makes no secret of his disdain for Jenkins’ singing and is likely to pen a devastating review. Bayfield has to do something — but what?
Director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) strikes an engaging balance between comedy and drama, vividly evoking the period setting and stylishly dropping us into a world in which deception is almost as important as art.
The film is a perfect vehicle for Streep, who turns in one of her lighter, more crowd-pleasing performances without being nonsensical about the title character. The acclaimed actress blends panache and passion in a virtuosic display recreating the title character who was able to accomplish her dream bolstered by wealth. And Grant is terrific as Bayfield, whose complicated relationship with Jenkins is at the heart of the story.
It’s not necessary to be a classical-music buff to be charmed by this thoroughly entertaining film that never hits the right musical notes. Based on a true story, “Florence Foster Jenkins” is a throwback to grand story telling focusing on a passionate eccentric character who affects those that revolve in her universe.
It is no easy thing to sing badly, especially when you can sing really well like Streep, but here her performance is littered with dreadfully amusing warbling. Think its easy to sing poorly? Consider Streep belting out the “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” with emotional gusto veering somewhat closely to the performances of the opera world’s elite sopranos. Her wardrobe seems almost comical resembling curtain retreads. Streep, as the grande dame, has a good time vocally as well as in sporting fashions of the era.
Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t hit the right notes (musically), but the film hits the high note in classical storytelling, drawing audience sympathy to a women who wanted to be an artist, and admiration for an artist who brings her to screen life.
The film is now showing in select theatres.
Written by: Alex Reynolds