Just over seventy years ago, a singer took to the stage in Carnegie Hall to perform to a sell-out crowd. The catch – she couldn’t sing. Stephen Frears’ film Foster Florence Jenkins recounts the story of that woman, bringing in a top quality cast in a film that is very feel-good, but fails to be as emotionally complex as it could be.
In the 1940s, New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) dreams of becoming a great opera singer – unfortunately, her ambition far exceeds her talent. The voice that Florence hears in her head is that of a beautiful soprano, but to everyone else, including her new pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), it is incredibly lousy. Her husband St. Clair (Hugh Grant) goes to incredible lengths to make sure that his wife never finds out how awful she truly is, but when Florence announces her plans for a concert at Carnegie Hall, St. Clair soon realises that he is facing his greatest challenge yet.
Florence Foster Jenkins is a film that really stands on the strength of its performances – casting Meryl Streep is a pretty much dead cert to ensure a quality performance at the centre of the movie (despite some obvious padding and a dodgy wig). Streep is evidently enjoying herself here, getting to have fun during the dilettante’s somewhat dottier moments, but also able to generate emotion in the more poignant scenes. It certainly helps that, for all her eccentricities, Jenkins is a selfless and decent woman – the kind of protagonist it would be very hard to not root for.
She is also flanked by a pair of very strong co-stars. Simon Helberg, better known as the obnoxious Howard Wolowitz from The Big Bang Theory, shows a different side entirely – here, he gets to play with a degree of innocent hysteria, as well as being the man to turn to whenever a funny reaction shot is needed. The true strength of the movie (heretical as it is to suggest in a movie with Meryl Streep) is Hugh Grant, offering here his best performance in years.
His St. Clair is the grounding influence of the film, a man whose devotion to his wife is evident as he struggles to maintain the unusual lifestyle that surrounds her. Because Grant is such a likeable presence, his is a character that we also root for, but the script paints St. Clair in an interesting light. However, despite his love for Florence, he is given a secret life that Florence seems to know, then not know, about, and it is difficult to truly believe Grant’s dedicated performance when the movie seems to want to paint him as a cad.
St. Clair is then a more interesting character than Florence, in part because the movie is a very safe film that isn’t inclined to criticise or analyse her. It sets up complexities like these in the first half – the nature of St. Clair’s relationships with Florence and his mistress, the question of Florence’s syphilis – but then disregards them in the second half, focusing instead on Florence’s performance at Carnegie Hall. The movie remains watchable in spite of this, but it could have been so much more – it offers a feel-good vibe, but could also have been a thought-provoking one too.
Less successful are the movie’s attempts to create a villain – in this case, a sneering critic played by Christian McKay. The film, having encouraged us to laugh at Jenkin’s poor singing ability, finds the critic who wants to write exactly that to be a bad guy, partly because he won’t accept a bribe to lie about her. It could be raising a question – is it right to critique if the artist and the audience are enjoying themselves – but it feels more an attempt to generate a bit of conflict for the film’s climax.
Florence Foster Jenkins is a gentle, tragi-comic film that celebrates mediocrity, boasting three exceptional lead performances that make this a good watch. The script could perhaps have done with some more work, but as a feel-good film, it is well done.
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Hugh Grant (St. Clair Bayfield), Simon Helberg (Cosme McMoon), Rebecca Ferguson (Kathleen), Nina Arianda (Agnes Stark), Stanley Townsend (Phineas Stark)
Running Time: 111 Mins