The sounds that delusional diva Florence Foster Jenkins made during her recitals—preserved on some cringe-inducing recordings—may not have been terribly sweet, but Stephen Frears’ film about her certainly is. It’s also beautifully crafted and impeccably cast, a charming ode to trying to fulfill one’s dreams, however long the odds might be. There have been several past treatments of her late-in-life career, on stage (“Souvenir” and “Glorious!”) as well as screen (“Marguerite”), but none as enjoyable as this delicious confection.
Jenkins (Meryl Streep), of course, is a New York socialite and musical philanthropist who, along with her debonair second husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), an actor of very modest ability, not only gives financial support to the likes of the Metropolitan Opera and Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) in the early forties, but also presents elaborate tableaux vivants for the appreciative members of the music-loving Verdi Club that she sponsors She also gives private recitals where friends gamely tolerate her off-key singing, the awfulness of which she apparently can’t—or won’t—recognize, perhaps because the proceeds go to worthwhile causes, perhaps because they simply like her.
While the film offers some perspective on Jenkins’ earlier life—gently bringing up the early bout of syphilis that left her weak and perhaps affected her hearing—its emphasis is on 1944, when, at age 76, she decides to bring her dubious talent into public view with a recital at no less than Carnegie Hall. Despite keeping up a relationship on the side with a younger woman (Rebecca Ferguson), her husband is utterly devoted to Jenkins (he’s rigorously kept scoffers from her recitals, and paid journalists for kind, or at least equivocal, reviews), and after some initial qualms gives his full support to the project, enlisting young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) to provide the accompaniment, as well as continuing her sessions with a voice coach from the Met.
As portrayed here by Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin, who generally follows the historical chronology but certainly doesn’t strive for documentary accuracy, the big evening is a rowdy affair, with many seats given away gratis to servicemen who have already heard the records she cut and were more prone to ridicule than applaud. It’s only the commanding intervention of airheaded Carole Lombard type Agnes Stark (Nina Arianda), who had previously had to be carried out of one of Jenkins’ private recitals by her apologetic husband (Stanley Townsend) for laughing hysterically, which calms everyone down and allows the program to proceed. Jenkins’ triumph is short-lived, however, since hard-nosed columnist Earl Wilson (Christian McKay) has wormed his way into the recital and writes a devastating review that, despite the best efforts of Bayfield and Moon, Jenkins will see—and be crushed by.
“Marguerite,” the French film by Xavier Giannoli that was inspired by Jenkins’ story and released here earlier this year, was more ambitious than this one, speculating on the psychological causes of its heroine’s decision to do a public concert as arising from her husband’s philandering, and adding a romantic subplot about a young reporter and an aspiring soprano. It was a good, funny, thoughtful film, but Frears’ uncluttered take on the real person, if simpler in narrative, is more fun. Part of this arises from the nimbleness with which the director treats the material, putting it across with the sort of elan that studio-era Hollywood seemed able to muster effortlessly in the thirties and forties but has become almost a lost art today. The luscious period look of the picture—courtesy of production designer Alan McDonald (employing locales in London and Manchester to stand in for World War II New York), art director Patrick Rolfe, set decorator Caroline Smith and costume designer Consolata Boyle, whose contributions are set off by cinematographer Danny Cohen’s lustrous images—adds to the deliriously old-fashioned feel.
But Frears is also aware of the value of star power, giving fitting leeway to Streep, who’s obviously reveling not only in emulating Jenkins’ off-key warbling (not an easy task), but in giving this flamboyant woman a deep underlying vein of poignancy. That comes out clearly in her scenes with Grant, who employs the dapper, genial persona he’s long cultivated to the best effect in years here, while toning down the bumbling that’s too often afflicted his work. Perhaps the most revelatory performance, however, comes from Helberg, who brings both his accomplished pianism and his extraordinary comic timing to McMoon. His wide-eyed reaction shots are irresistible, and Frears isn’t reluctant to take advantage of them; but Helberg also shows a quieter, more reflective side, helping to bring out the bond of real affection that developed between McMoon and Jenkins. The remainder of the cast basically plays second (or third, or fourth) fiddle to the three stars, but Arianda certainly makes her mark, while McKay is appropriately smug and superior as hanging judge Wilson.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” may be applauded chiefly as a tour de force for Streep, and it is. But that underestimates the film. It’s at once a funny and touching tale of a woman who wouldn’t let mere lack of talent destroy her desire to share her love of music with others.