In the mid-’40s, amateur soprano Florence Foster Jenkins sold out Carnegie Hall even faster than Frank Sinatra, turning away nearly 2,000 people at the door. The difference between her and Sinatra? She was a terrible singer — critics called her the worst in the world.
Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity) sheds light on the humor of the story without losing the heart. Beneath the laughs lies a poignant look at the power of perseverance.
The great Meryl Streep stars as the titular character — a New York heiress who lives for music. When we first meet her, she is running a music club with her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), and mostly showcasing other artists’ work. Early on, we see that she wants to cast a spell on people just like the performers she admires.
With the help of her hubby and an ambitious young pianist named Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), Florence starts putting on shows and making records despite her complete lack of singing ability.
At first, this seems like an off-putting spectacle — an example of how wealth and influence can create opportunities that more talented people can’t afford. But in this age of viral videos and reality TV, this story resonates more now than ever before. It’s so easy to get 15 minutes of fame in today’s world that people from all different walks of life are jumping for it, and we can’t resist watching them try. Above all, Florence Foster Jenkins is about trying. As she says near the end of the film, “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”
In lesser hands, Florence could easily be a mere cartoon, but Streep makes her delusions of grandeur oddly inspiring. She plays her as a woman blinded by her dying wish, seeing the world through the haze of her dreams. It’s a tender, touching portrayal, reminding you why we remain in awe of Streep after all these years.
Unfortunately, Helberg does what Streep avoids, turning his character into a goofy comic force. Rather than digging into McMoon’s performance anxiety and fear of working with Florence, he merely turns him into a ball of quirky tics. He’s by far the weakest part of the film.
Grant delivers the true standout performance, grounding the strange story in rich emotional reality. He’s a quietly tragic character — a man as blinded by dreams as his wife. He makes you understand why people would avoid discouraging Florence — not because of her social power but because of her infectious warmth and compassion. This is one of Grant’s best performances; it’s engaging, elegantly understated and Oscar-worthy — a description that also applies to the film itself.
Florence Foster Jenkins is one of the better films of the year. Like Eddie the Eagle, it’s an underdog story that makes us realize how feelings of triumph don’t always lie in traditional success. Sometimes, people can win without even crossing the finish line.