Streep Sings Again As Florence Foster Jenkins
From time to time, a singer with a unique voice has a moment to share that voice with an audience. During the American Idol era, William Hung released a couple of albums that showcased his ability. In the 1960s, Mrs. Elva Miller, billed simply as Mrs. Miller, was a singer like Hung who got the chance to record. Florence Foster Jenkins preceded both of them. In the movie that bears her name, Meryl Streep stars as Jenkins, a rich and popular patron of the opera and the founder of a Verdi opera society that staged shows for its members. Her actor husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), often performed soliloquies for the shows in 1940s New York. When the couple attends a performance by opera singer Lily Pons (Aida Garifullina), Florence tells St. Clair she'd like to sing opera for the club.
St. Clair puts the pieces in place for Florence to attain her wish. First, he holds auditions for a piano player to accompany her. Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) so impresses Florence with his play, she has St. Clair hire him on the spot. Carlo Edwards (David Haig) gives Madame Florence voice lessons when his schedule allows. While Edwards does nothing but offer encouragement, Cosme observes what St. Clair already knows, and learns discretion as he continues to play for this eager vocalist. In time, they do perform at the club to mostly rave reviews. Florence even persuades Cosme to record with her. St. Clair does what he can to keep his wife from the detractors, though he's put to the test when she arranges to take her act to Carnegie Hall.
Florence Foster Jenkins paints a sympathetic picture of a woman who lived to please, even when others thought her voice was anything but pleasing. Director Stephen Frears made a great rock movie in 2000 with High Fidelity, and again shows his obvious passion for music here. In spite of what someone might think of Madame Florence's singing, she did have fans and support. The press, especially New York Post columnist Earl Wilson (Christian McKay), want their chance to judge for themselves. Frears deftly mixes the comedy with a little drama about Jenkins's long-running battle with syphillis, which she received from her long-dead first husband, and left her unable to bear children. The script comes from Nicholas Martin, writing for the big screen for the first time. He creates a portrait that dares a viewer to sneer at the earnest efforts of Florence, St. Clair, and Cosme. Frears shows a different sort of high fidelity here, and creates a musical picture almost as memorable as his earlier music-related film.
Streep has previously shown she can sing in Into The Woods and Ricki And The Flash, but she rises to a different singing challenge as Florence Foster Jenkins. Her patronage has been noted by the opera world, including conductor Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh). When she decides she wants to perform opera, she shows she has a song in her heart that doesn't find its way to her voice in the way a typical opera lover would want. Nobody she knows, though, ever asks her to stop. Streep delivers marvelous and sympathetic portrayal as Mrs. Jenkins. Grant is exceptional as the mostly devoted St. Clair, who stands faithfully by her in her waking moments, doing everything he can to protect his wife from the notion that she is no Lily Pons. Once he serenades her to sleep, he spends time with the much younger Kathleen Weatherley (Rebecca Ferguson), who fills a need Florence cannot. As a result, St. Clair can be hard to like, but he also appreciates that a part of his marriage involves a love of fine arts, even when fine tuning might be in order. Helberg is best known for his role on TV's The Big Bang Theory, but he does a fine job as the patient Cosme, who understands that opportunity can manifest itself in an unexpected way.
Some of the best surprises of Florence Foster Jenkins come just before the credits, which quickly tells the story of what happened following the events depicted. That helps to create a better understanding of this biopic. Florence Foster Jenkins may not have won over the world with her interpretation of arias, but some people were able to enjoy the music for what it was. It was the work of a woman whose intentions were in the right place, but her delivery, to some, left much to be desired.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Florence Foster Jenkins 3.5 stars. And now, on with her opera.