Florence Foster Jenkins is one of those tales that if it weren’t an actual true story, you’d never believe it could happen in real life. But the new biographical film about the “worst” opera singer to ever play Carnegie Hall starring Meryl Streep is both a fascinating true story and a funny and bittersweet testament to a woman’s love of music that made the city fall in love with her.
The reliably tremendous Meryl Streep stars as the titular character that is refreshingly one of her most different roles in a long and storied career. Jenkins is a wealthy, but sweet and beloved figure in New York City’s theater scene. She lives for the arts, but is also quite aloof at her lack of talent to perform them, yet everyone around her can’t help but encourage her enthusiasm.
Jenkins was also constantly fighting for her health after decades of battling syphilis which she contracted from her first husband and had no real treatment at the time. The delicate nature of her health and her infectious love of the musical arts, not to mention her immense wealth, drew many enablers to surround Jenkins creating an almost fantasy world she lived in where she thought she was one of the top performing arts talents of her time.
After being inspired by an opera singer, Jenkins enlists her current husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) to find her a pianist so she can begin her attempt to rekindle her singing career. She finds a certain chemistry with the mildly talented, but hilariously awkward Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) and after some convincing from Bayfield, McMoon joins the loony crusade – because once McMoon hears Jenkins’ squawking attempt at singing for the first time, he doesn’t know whether to laugh or leave the room offended.
That first scene where Jenkins sings for McMoon and Bayfield is wonderfully funny and Streep is the perfect mix of lovable and loopy. Helberg plays McMoon with an effeminate cadence mixed with a constant sense of being uncomfortable and has fantastic reactionary shots throughout the film as he witnesses the train wreck that is Jenkins singing her heart out.
No longer a young heartthrob, the visually aging Hugh Grant also deserves high marks for taking some excellently written material and running with it. Bayfield could have been the jerk of the story due to his girlfriend on the side (the lovely Rebecca Ferguson) or his use of Jenkins’ wealth for golf trips etc., but Grant’s still undeniable likability, mixed with a layered script, really make him one of the most complex characters in Florence Foster Jenkins.
The film takes a wild, humorous ride with Jenkins’ meteoric rise toward her legendary debut at Carnegie Hall, delivering an emotional finale that is both touching, but not so dramatic that it takes away from the overall fun of the journey. Grant and Streep have some particularly tremendous scenes together in the final act of the film that are certainly a top career moment for Grant.
The film effortless sashays from comedy to drama while providing the beautiful period piece setting of 1940’s New York, impressively re-created giving the whole story an almost timeless feel. The trio of actors portraying the lead characters turn in some of their finest work, making Florence Foster Jenkins’ life fascinating to watch play out due to the excellent execution and the knowledge that as ludicrous as it seems, Jenkins’ story is real.