Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) was quite an interesting woman for not only her sheer lack of talent but also her incredible obliviousness to that awful truth. It seemed she really believed she was a good singer, but it is apparent from the archival recordings of her performances that she was indeed a terrible one to say the least. Once you check out these recordings of hers available at websites including YouTube, you will instantly understand why it is said that Cole Porter, one of her notable fans, had to bang his cane into his foot for not laughing out loud during her performance. Yes, she was so bad that her singing was as impressive as those goofy crass cult films by Edward D. Wood Jr., and it is no wonder that Porter rarely missed her recital.
Stephen Frears’ new film “Florence Foster Jenkins” has a lot of fluffy fun with its undeniably fascinating human subject, and the result is a sweet, lighthearted period comedy with some poignancy and gravitas to balance its many uproarious moments. Thanks to its three amiable main performances, the movie smoothly glides along with big laughs for us, and we find ourselves liking and caring about its seemingly superficial main characters a lot as they rise to the occasion under their outrageous comic circumstance.
It is 1944 in New York City, and the ongoing war outside US feels like a gloomy but distant cloud in the affluent and luxurious world of Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), one of the prominent socialites in New York City who is also the president of the Verdi Club, her own social organization for music lovers. The opening sequence in the film shows her private music stage show for the club members, and she does a fairly good job under the direction of St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a washed-up Shakespearean actor who has lived with Jenkins as her de fact second husband/manager. While other performers handle singing parts, all she has to do is posing as instructed during each scene, and everyone is fine with that.
But Jenkins is eager to sing in front of others as following her sincere passion toward music, and Bayfield cannot say no to her. While he is currently in the relationship with Kathleen Weatherley (Rebecca Ferguson from “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (2015)), he remains devoted to Jenkins none the less, and her happiness is always his No.1 priority. In fact, we later learn that his relationship with Weatherley is a practical arrangement in the sexless relationship between him and Jenkins, though he prefers to keep it under cover to his mistress’ frustration.
Several pianists soon come to Jenkin’s place of residence in a posh downtown hotel for the audition for the accompanist in her singing lesson, and that is how a young pianist named Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) comes into the picture. He cannot believe his luck when he manages to earn Jenkins’ affection and esteem, but then he comes to behold his wealthy employer’s unforgettable singing ability, and Simon Helberg is hilariously tense and awkward as his character is trying to get his posture under control while also struggling to suppress a certain urge during this priceless scene.
In front of Helberg and her other co-performers, Meryl Streep is effortlessly impeccable as embodying her character’s atrocious singing and incorrigible earnestness. We all know that Streep is in fact a good singer as shown from “Mamma Mia” (2008) and “Into the Woods” (2014), but she is quite convincing enough to make us forget that at least for a while, and I must report to you that her singing scenes always drew giggles from me and other audiences during the screening.
Although hopelessly unaware of her terrible singing, Jenkins comes to us as a good-natured old lady who simply enjoying herself with fulfilling her misguided lifelong aspiration, and Streep brings lots of gentle charm and humanity to her character. We cannot help but roll our eyes as watching Jenkins virtually butchering a number of familiar songs, but we also come to see modesty and good-will from a fragile but ebullient woman who is not so easily inhibited by her bad health, which was resulted from her syphilitic infection and the following poisonous medical treatments via arsenic and mercury (it has been speculated that they were the main reason for her aural insensitivity, by the way).
Hugh Grant, who notably looks older than before, is another delight in the movie. Classy, charming, and snobbish as usual, Grant gives a wry deadpan performance complementing Helberg’s neurotic acting, and he is surprisingly touching during the private scenes between Jenkins and Bayfield. They are not exactly conventional spouses, but their long relationship is deeper than it initially seemed, and that surprises even Bayfield himself, who, like McMoon, comes to worry more about Jenkins when her singing is getting more public expose than they have ever imagined. As shown during the climax part of the movie, Jenkins really performed at the Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1944, and it was definitely something to be remembered for everyone besides Jenkins herself.
Although Nicholas Martin’s screenplay is a bit heavy-handed as trying to draw more sympathy and cheer from us, “Florence Foster Jenkins” already earns our laughs and applauses mainly thanks Streep, Grant, and Helberg, and the movie is as enjoyable as Frears’ other small lovable comedy films such as “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (2005) and “Tamara Drewe” (2010). Boy, she cannot sing at all, but, what the hell, nobody can say that she did not sing, right?
Sidenote: Jenkins’ life story also partially inspired French comedy film “Marguerite” (2015), which has its own delightful comic elements including its lead actress Catherine Frot’s equally memorable comic performance.