FILM REVIEW – FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. With Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Allan Corduner. Written by Nicholas Martin. Directed by Stephen Frears. Rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material. 110 minutes.
If FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS was the story of a clueless socialite’s public humiliation, there would be little reason to tell this story. Instead, like “Ed Wood” (1994), it’s a movie in which love of art and kindness of heart triumphs over lack of talent. And, ironically, the title character is played by the most gifted actress of her generation.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was a real person who in 1940s New York was a patron of the arts and occassionally burst forth in song herself. The problem was that she could not carry a tune in the proverbial handbasket. In a word, she was awful. That didn’t stop her though. Those around her either pretended not to notice–hard as that might be–or really couldn’t tell. Her devoted husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) protected her by making sure only the right people were permitted to attend her performances, which is to say, those who wouldn’t mock her.
In the hands of Meryl Streep, with Stephen Frears directing (from a script by British TV writer Nicholas Martin), Jenkins is a lovably dotty figure. Over the course of the film, we come first to sympathize and then respect the path she has carved out for herself. She is not deterred by negativity, and wins over even those who are skeptical. We learn just how badly stacked the deck is against her–it’s not just a singing voice akin to fingernails on a chalkboard–and how she perservered in spite of it all.
Her marriage may seem peculiar, especially when we meet St. Clair’s girlfriend Katherine (Rebecca Ferguson) with whom he lives, but like Jenkins, he is also not what he seems at first glance. Grant has played his share of cads, but that’s not who St. Clair is, and he navigates the tricky role with aplomb.
Thrown into this situation is Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”), a classically trained pianist hired to be her accompanist, including at her climactic concert at Carnegie Hall. He can’t quite believe what he’s gotten himself into but he, too, falls under the peculiar spell of Jenkins.
What is it about her utter lack of talent that is so endearing? Part of it is her sincere love for the music she’s mangling and her desire to share that love with the world. Those who conspire to keep the truth from her might see it as telling a child there is no Santa Claus. Who is she harming, after all? It is that childlike innocence, combined with her strong will to put herself out there–first in a recording, then at Carnegie Hall–that makes her the heroine rather than the patsy of this story. How many of us let self-doubt prevent us from doing the things we really want to do?
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is the triumphant story of a woman who had multiple opportunities to give up, and refused to take them.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.