Wealthy New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins has gone down in history as the worst opera singer ever. Whenever she set sail on the high Cs, music lovers would be left feeling queasy while everyone else would be struggling to stifle hoots of laughter. Yet in Stephen Frears’ tender, generously warm-hearted biopic starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant she proves to be far more than a figure of fun.
Indeed, while the film finds hilarity in Florence’s awfulness as a singer it also finds something admirable about her pursuit of her musical dreams in 1940s Manhattan – even if those dreams are sustained by a massive fortune, equally large amounts of self-delusion and the loyal support of her partner, St Clair Bayfield.
Played with typically droll suavity by Hugh Grant, failed English thespian St Clair manages Florence’s amateur career, arranging her private recitals and coaxing everyone in her orbit – including pliant singing teachers and journalists – into delivering a positive response whenever she opens her mouth to sing.
As the story builds towards Florence’s legendary Carnegie Hall concert of 1944 – her first performance before an uncontrollable public audience rather than tractable private one – the film proves surprisingly gripping as well as uproariously funny.
How bad will Florence’s singing prove? And how will her listeners respond, starting with her naïve, newly hired piano accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (played by The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg)? The film also keeps us on tenterhooks wondering about St Clair’s true motives. Is his loyalty the product of love or simply a means to enjoy the lavish lifestyle Florence’s fortune enables?
Frears and his actors juggle these questions with admirable dexterity, pulling off the feat of being simultaneously funny and touching. Streep, as you would expect, is a joy. Undubbed, she reproduces the hideous racket Florence made with impressive fidelity, yet she also gives us moving insight into the heartaches and tragedies lying behind the heiress’s burning desire to perform. Florence couldn’t hit the right note with a blunderbuss, but Streep’s performance is pitch perfect.
Certificate PG. Runtime 110 mins. Director Stephen Frears