“Florence Foster Jenkins” is a light, consistently funny and heartfelt little movie about one woman’s dream to sing Opera. There’s only one problem: she can’t sing to save her life.
That woman is Florence Foster Jenkins, an aging wealthy heiress who owns a high-end music club along with her husband/failed actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). Jenkins loves music and wants to become an Opera singer; so she hires the very best teacher and brings in a fresh young piano player Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, giving a giggly, fidgety, slightly effeminate performance that often feels forced and excessive). But limitless time and money can’t produce the ability to carry a note or a sense of pitch or rhythm.
So what we’ve got here is an “Emperor’s New Clothes-“esque situation. Florence can’t sing but Bayfield, McMoon and others keep telling her she can and she goes on believing she can. When it comes time for a concert at the club, Bayfield painstakingly selects an audience (including members of the press) that won’t tell the truth.
The best thing about “Florence Foster Jenkins” is that Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin allow us to laugh at Jenkins’ terrible singing without laughing at her. Considering that the movie is about a wealthy white woman pursuing a wild dream while wrapped in a comforting blanket of forced smiles and “yes” men, the movie isn’t as cynical or scathing as it could be. It never feels like the film is actively trying to mock or criticize her and her naiveté. Instead Frears applies a delicate touch that inspires sympathy on our part.
During her lessons, as she tries oh so hard to sing, you can’t help but laugh at her screeches and the bewildered people around her who have to bury their real reactions. And you’re supposed to laugh. At the same time, the more you get to know her and the more time you spend around her bubbly infectious personality you can’t help but like her and admire her spirit. She’s revealed to be a sweet, caring, selfless person who’s simply passionate about music and wants to share that passion with the world. Her efforts to support and promote the arts are always apparent.
As usual Streep is magnificent, playing Jenkins with intelligent foolishness. Like her similarly eloquent, animated performance in “Julie and Julia” Streep is an effortless comedian but she also mixes in just enough tenderness and vulnerability to keep Jenkins from morphing into a total caricature. Grant is also strong; at fifty-six the British actor is still charming as hell. At first you’re somewhat skeptical of Bayfield and his motives. Since their relationship is wholly platonic and he’s a struggling artist himself you wonder if he’s simply using her for selfish reasons. But when you see all that he does for her and during their quieter, private scenes, you can feel a genuine sense of affection between them.
Yet, I have to wonder. What would happen if Bayfield, McCoon and others told her the truth? Would it be really devastating for her? Would she never recover? What would be the harm in gently giving her honest feedback instead of letting her believe she’s a great singer, especially when you consider all the work Bayfield has to do to keep the lie going? Seeing as how she’s so nice and generous, the silence on the part of her friends and acquaintances can’t help but feel a little disingenuous at times. These are fascinating questions/issues that the film never really explores in any caliber. Hell, there isn’t even a discussion between Bayfield and McMoon about the matter. It’s a neglected angle that keeps this otherwise solid film from achieving greatness.