We’re lucky to live in a world that graces us with at least one new Meryl Streep performance every year. She is one of the greatest actors who has ever lived, and she continues to impress with every performance even if the surrounding picture doesn’t reach her level. Thankfully, she has another success on her hands with Stephen Frears’ warmhearted Florence Foster Jenkins. While the movie is a bit of a simple dramedy, Streep elevates the picture with her performance that is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. Through Streep and her co-stars, we see the healing power of music even when that music is absolutely butchered despite the best intentions.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Steep) is a wealthy socialite in 1944 New York City and a patron of the arts. When Florence and her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) attend the performance of an opera singer, Florence seizes on a desire to perform opera herself. St. Clair, who dotes on his ailing wife, wants to do everything in his power to make her happy, so he hires a voice coach along with pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) to practice with Florence. There’s just one issue: Florence is completely, utterly, hopelessly tone deaf. St. Clair and Cosme work tirelessly to hide this truth from Florence, but they face their biggest challenge when Florence, who has become a sensation on the radio, books Carnegie Hall.
From Mamma Mia! and Into the Woods, we know that Streep can sing. Her skill in Florence Foster Jenkins is to sing not just badly, but convincingly bad. It takes just as much skill to hit the exact wrong note as it does to hit the right ones. Streep imbues Florence’s singing with an aching sincerity. She’s never reaching for the laugh even though she’s investing in the physicality of the performance to the point where she’s basically screeching like a monkey. There’s no winking at the audience. She’s playing Florence straight because Florence doesn’t know she’s an awful singer.
Frears keeps the proceedings reasonably light, but he does come across some depth when it comes to the meaning of music and how we use it to relate to each other. Florence, St. Clair, and Cosme are bound to each other because they all love music, not necessarily by a love of music. In more critical eyes, Florence would be an anathema to music because she sings so poorly, and yet in Florence Foster Jenkins, the intent matters more than the result. This approach fits in nicely with Florence’s popularity, which was high among the soldiers who thought she was a laugh riot.
The movie appears to operate under the thinking, “If everybody’s happy, then who are we hurting?” If the soldiers who listen to Florence’s music get a laugh from her singing rather than musical uplift, does their joy matter any less? The same thinking applies to Florence and St. Clair’s open marriage. Florence, who was infected with syphilis from her first husband, can’t be intimate with St. Clair, so he has a young mistress that he keeps a secret from his wife. And yet the film repeatedly stresses St. Clair’s devotion to Florence, and it’s clear he truly loves her and that his mistress, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), fulfills a role in his life that Florence can’t due to her illness.
This opens up a welcome debate on whether or not St. Clair is a greedy cad, who, while he tells Cosme that he and Florence have an “understanding”, goes to great lengths to hide Kathleen from his wife. There is something patronizing about St. Clair’s behavior, not just in how he hides his affair from Florence, but also in how he attempts to shield her from any negative feedback. He has the wealth (or, rather, his wife’s wealth) to buy up newspapers containing negative reviews and pay off critics, and he does it because he feels that she’s physically too frail to take criticism. But because Florence Foster Jenkins is a movie that applauds intent rather than outcome, St. Clair is depicted as a kind and loving husband even though his actions could be viewed with more skepticism.
However, it’s difficult to apply such skepticism when Streep and Grant are so wonderful together. You truly buy them as a loving couple even though their marriage operates under non-monogamous terms. The two are so good together that St. Clair’s relationship with Kathleen almost feel superfluous and while there’s nothing wrong with Grant or Ferguson’s work, they don’t have the same chemistry as Grant and Streep, which works to the film’s advantage. This isn’t a movie about a love triangle as much as it’s about unconventional relationships and how the characters derive affection from those relationships.
It would be nice if the movie could rest on a strong trio, but sadly, Helberg comes up short. It’s heavily implied that Cosme is gay, but it seems like Helberg was given the direction of having to play closeted but open enough so that the audience is aware of his character’s sexuality. His solution is to play Cosme as constantly winded or giggling to himself. It’s an odd choice and one that makes the character feel like a series of tics rather than a fully realized person like his co-stars. On paper, Cosme is a nice compliment to Florence and St. Clair’s relationship, but in execution, Helberg is being outdone by two heavyweights.
Florence Foster Jenkins is an odd sort of romance. The film has a curious notion of how people should behave towards one another and that perhaps honesty isn’t the best policy if it means making someone happy. And yet its heart is in the right place when it comes to how music brings people together even if you can’t hit the right notes. It’s a big song in a minor key that nevertheless has a lovely melody.