Editor’s Notes: Florence Foster Jenkins is now out in its respective format.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Paramount) is a sweet look at a real-life New York City World War II-era patroness of the arts who funded operatic recitals to raise money for assorted charities. She occasionally performed her favorite arias to a select audience of the city’s upper crust, who would politely applaud, never acknowledging that she was perhaps the worst singer in the world.
Meryl Streep fully inhabits the role, making her portrayal of the deluded diva touching rather than clownish. There are definitely funny moments as her character gives forth with flat, off-key renditions of notable opera selections, self-assured that she is honoring the composers with her unique performance.
Florence has an understanding with her second husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a lesser British noble and failed actor. He is devoted to Florence and her musical aspirations, and very protective of her feelings. He also has a girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), whom he visits on frequent “golfing outings.” The relationship between Florence and Bayfield is the glue that holds the film together.
When Florence wishes to hire an accompanist to rehearse with her, Bayfield arranges auditions for pianists. Timid, awkward Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”) seems a perfect fit. When Cosme hears the first notes out of her mouth, the look on his face is priceless. However, the pay is too good to refuse, so he goes along with the illusion that Madame Florence can really sing. As time passes Cosme develops genuine affection for his employer and fellow music lover.
After we hear a few sour notes from Streep (who can actually sing quite well) and recover from the extravagantly preposterous costumes, the movie has to sustain our interest in Florence. Writer Nicholas Martin and director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) give us her back story, which has a tragic element. The devotion of Bayfield is genuine, and he is obsessive about shielding Florence from music critics and the world outside her social circle.
Back in the 1950s, singer Jo Stafford and her husband, arranger/pianist Paul Weston, issued a series of comic albums under the pseudonyms Jonathan and Darlene Edwards. His piano stylings included inept ornamentation and fearless searches for the correct key, while she mangled the American popular songbook with bizarre phrasing, missed cues, and vocal fumbles. She was also hysterical in her ability to hit notes a half-tone off — and sometimes more. Played strictly for laughs, the songs were exercises in questionable musical self-assurance. Madame Florence, in contrast, had no inkling that her operatic endeavors were less than sterling.
In Florence Foster Jenkins, director Frears isn’t content to provide us with a one-joke picture. Though we laugh at Florence’s limited vocal abilities, we also are moved by her sincerity, devotion to music, support of the arts, and affection for Bayfield. Streep continues to etch memorable portrayals of real people, whether Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child, or now, Florence Foster Jenkins. She enriches the picture with her thoughtful attention to detail, particularly the quiet reflective moments when we can see Madame Florence as a human being, not a joke.
Rated PG-13, Florence Foster Jenkins suggests a gentler time when people were loath to hurt the feelings of a kind woman who simply loved opera so much she had to share her “gift.” Though the movie recognizes she lived in a protective bubble that allowed her to keep her illusions, it also reveals her many admirable facets, not content to make her a mere buffoon.