Florence Foster Jenkins is as sweet and lovingly crafted a biopic as audiences have seen all year.
It’s a lighthearted glimpse at the life of a woman whose love of music and the arts defined her life and her legend. As brought to life by one of our age’s true screen legends, it’s a delight that should not be missed.
What’s it about?
In 1944 New York City, wealthy heiress and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is the star of “The Verdi Club,” a members-only gathering of music and opera patrons. Her husband, actor St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), occasionally warms up Verdi Club audiences with a monologue, but mostly acts as Florence’s manager.
It’s not an easy job. Mostly, it involves making sure Florence’s audiences are friendly and arts critics in attendance are well compensated in advance for good reviews.
For St. Clair, however, what’s most important is protecting Florence from any possible harm, including the awful truth. Florence … is a terrible singer.
She doesn’t realize it, of course. In her head, she has a lovely voice. Due to her kind and generous nature, peers and fellow art lovers lack the heart to tell her otherwise.
But when a recording of Florence makes it on the radio and generates a tremendous response, particularly from U.S. servicemen home from the fighting in Europe, she makes a bold choice. Florence resolves to perform a benefit for the boys at no less than Carnegie Hall.
With some help from Florence’s devoted but justifiably mortified pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), St. Clair sets out to do what he’s always done for his “bunny”: help her live out her dreams. But even their best efforts may not be enough to get Florence through the biggest night of her life unscathed by the harshest critic of all: reality.
Streep, as always, shines
The true story behind Florence Foster Jenkins isn’t not an unfamiliar one, especially for music and theater buffs. In fact, the story was the subject of a German documentary released earlier this year.
What makes the difference here is, naturally, Meryl Streep. Streep, who really can sing, clearly has a ball portraying someone who really, really can’t sing.
Her depiction of Florence is all the more endearing because the character is so blithely oblivious to her deficiencies. Between that and her genuine love of music and the arts, one can’t help but love Florence for her Quixotic efforts.
The cast behind her is exceptional, as well. Grant does proper and anxious as well as he ever has, but there’s real warmth and likability in what he brings to St. Clair. Helberg, however, draws some of the film’s biggest laughs thanks to his initial reaction to Florence’s singing and his subsequent terror at having to accompany her on the grandest of stages, putting his own ambitions at risk.
Not all played for laughs
Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) does not just play Florence Foster Jenkins for laughs, however. Yes, audiences who give the film a chance are likely to come away from it remembering best the flatness of Florence’s singing, because it really is funny and cringe-worthy to watch.
But beyond those moments, Frears brings to life in elegant fashion the chaste love between Florence and St. Clair, which helps fill the film with heart and emotional weight. The film also briefly touches on the role of critics in the world of the arts, how important their feedback can be, and how self-righteous they can become as they see themselves as self-appointed gatekeepers of quality.
Costume and production design also stand out in Florence Foster Jenkins. For this production, Frears turns to frequent collaborators Consolata Boyle (costumes) and Alan MacDonald (production), both of whom should be in the conversation for Oscar and BAFTA awards later this year. MacDonald’s art design is immersive and authentic throughout the film, while Boyle’s work on Florence’s attire, from her everyday clothes to her costumes for performances, projects all the taste and charm that it should to be reflective of Florence herself.
For fans of Streep and Frears’ previous films, Florence Foster Jenkins is a must-see film, but its potential for appeal goes far beyond just those audiences.
Yes, there are all those laughs during Florence’s attempts at opera that may also have viewers hiding their eyes or covering their ears. But there’s also a genuine admiration for the woman’s efforts and her devotion to the arts in the film, one that grants the film an irrepressible, unforgettable charm.
Florence Foster Jenkins
Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda. Directed by Stephen Frears.
Running Time: 110 minutes
Rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material.