Meryl Streep can, without question, carry a tune. The “greatest living actress” proved that long before headlining full-scale musicals like Mamma Mia! and Into the Woods. In the forgotten late-1980s work Ironweed opposite Jack Nicholson, Streep crooned “She’s Me Pal” to such a blistering effect, one could without proper context confuse the movie not to be the depression-fused marathon it actually is. The three-time Oscar winner also closed out her Postcards From the Edge (1990) rocking the tune “I’m Checking Out” and deliriously opened the bonkers camp classic Death Becomes Her with the Broadway-esque knee-slapper “That’s Me.” Streep can certainly hold a note. So it takes considerable talent on her part to portray perhaps one of the worst chanteuses of all time in Florence Foster Jenkins. Have no fear, she aces the test admirably as is likely expected – after all it takes one of exceptional talent to portray someone of such considerable deficiency.
Florence Foster Jenkins, director Stephen Frears’ confectionery period comedy tells the tale of the flattest singer ever to sell out Carnegie Hall; to boot it’s based on a true story. Jenkins was a lifetime music lover and one-time hopeful pianist who did in fact sell out Carnegie Hall in 1944 and was something of a cult sensation, if a fairly ironic one, due to little actual singing ability. Spurred on by a small army of enablers and carefully guarded and vetted performances from the singing phenom, Jenkins went on for a while without much of a commotion – likely aided by Jenkins’ generous disposable income. That’s pretty much the story, which on paper doesn’t seem overly cinematic, and it’s not. Yet, in the hands of a performer like Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins achieves a joyous, if featherweight, bit of alchemy it’s silly to protest.
This is because Streep not only does the work and creates a fully realized character, but also has such an uncanny register of the movie’s tone, size and scale. As Florence sings, Streep garbles each note with such gleeful misdirection – she’s the original American Idol audition contestant gone bad. Each note so discordant and inconsistent from the last that every syllable is a shrieking comic pleasure – the beaut of the performance is, alas, in how natural it actually plays. Her craft, by itself, provides enough pleasure but is augmented by the pure joy radiated from watching her cut loose. As she did while portraying Julia Child and Miranda Priestly, Streep’s performative joie de vivre can certainly sustain an entire movie and if Florence Foster Jenkins serves as little else than the privilege to luxuriate in Streep’s presence, that’s still a win.
Streep is ably supported just as Florence herself was. Most admirably by Hugh Grant who portrays husband St. Clair Bayfield, a sidelined British actor and Florence’s chief supporter/enabler. It’s the movie’s fib that the duo were actually married, yet the relationship between Florence and St. Clair is sincerely wrought with genuine compassion and thoughtfulness, even as he jaunts to visit his girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson, a natural screen presence, here with an underwritten role) every night once Florence is safely tucked away in bed. Yet, it’s St. Clair who goes to such outrageous lengths to protect his wealthy benefactor’s feelings -bribes were put in play to keep press notes sparkling- and a tenderness is underlined nearly instantly as St. Clair whisks Florence gently to sleep each night to the soothing sounds of classical sonnets. Nicholas Martin, the film’s credited screenwriter, nicely modulates and grounds their relationship with a lived-in sense of admiration while Frears holds back well enough, letting the actors and their chemistry guide the rhythm.
While it’s Streep who keeps Florence Foster Jenkins in check, it’s St. Clair who keeps the wisp of the plot in motion. As Florence embarks on grand plans to get back to singing, it’s St. Clair who enlists the aid of music teacher Carlo Edwards (David Haig) who is more interested in generous cash payouts than in formal training (he’s conveniently out of town for her performances, whenever they may be) and Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg, The Big Bang Theory), a classical pianist. Cosmé, as played by Helberg, is presented in all nervous tics and cartoonish reactions shots and serves as one of the film’s prime distractions – a played-for-laughs implication of his sexual preferences is particularly eye-rolling. Yet, with a team enlisted and a sharply dressed team of society sycophants – keep on eye on Nina Arianda’s deliciously bawdy turn as a socialite newbie – Florence’s reputation is safe. Unless that pesky New York Post critic manages admittance.
Florence Foster Jenkins fits in nicely with Frears’ recent output – Mrs. Henderson Presents, Philomena, The Queen - in pleasantly distilling a historical footnote with the utmost refinement. It’s a plus that a great many of his recent films have been highlighted by striking and frothy turns by women of a certain generation but it’s also difficult to detach that this is the same filmmaker who earlier in his career crafted such daring, dangerous and unnerving works like My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and The Grifters (1990). The stakes just aren’t partially high with Florence Foster Jenkins and even as the film casually entwines Florence’s somewhat uneasy backstory, Frears and team are clearly more invested in the broad strokes – Florence’s love for potato salad, for instance, is randomly given ample screen time – and threatens to outstay its welcome time and time again no matter how generous the performances themselves might be.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
You likely already know what to expect from Florence Foster Jenkins right from the start. The film is frothy, unfussy, made with the utmost refinement and features a lovely performance from Meryl Streep – awards season bells may well ring and there’s no reason to be upset about it. If there’s a surprise it comes in the generous and involving chemistry between Streep and Hugh Grant (perhaps never better) who ably support one another and give full portrayals of a most unorthodox couple – she a delusional society chanteuse and he a former stage actor with a girlfriend down the street. Streep sings in the first act of Florence, kind of giving the whole bag away, but it’s hard not to find pleasure in director Stephen Frears’ admirably low-key summer confection. Yet, now that this is out of the way, let all of the parties involved here return to more challenging fare.