I have to confess I had never heard of Florence Foster Jenkins before this new movie from director Stephen Frears began production. But as I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and that is what we have here in this true story about a New York society matron and patron of the arts who had a lifelong love for music, but not necessarily a knack for it. Still that didn’t stop her as the film’s signature line says, “they can say I couldn’t sing but they can’t say I didn’t.”
That about sums up Jenkins, who in the 1940’s performed difficult operatic arias with ear piercing renditions in front of friends and specially selected audience members who would never let on that she can’t quite, to be charitable, hit the right notes. In fact she’s awful by any musical standard. Somehow though, celebrities from Cole Porter to David Bowie have pronounced their fondness for her song stylings over the years, and the recordings she made became top sellers for the label releasing them. They are still in circulation. Meryl Streep, who really can sing, is simply great as Jenkins. She threads a tricky needle knowing to be convincingly bad, you have to be good enough to just be off enough to get people running for the exits, yet they never do because Jenkins’ companion of 40 years, St. Claire Bayfield (Hugh Grant), makes sure she is never aware of her shortcomings, even to the point of paying off critics to write glowing reviews. Bayfield is someone who was fairly down on his luck with an acting career going nowhere when he hooked up with the wealthy Jenkins and they began a relationship of convenience that became more than that, though they never married. He becomes her protector even as he is secretly carrying on with another woman (Rebecca Ferguson) and this becomes truly a love story of a kind not only between them, but also the third cog in this wheel, her ever-so-patient pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory).
Frears, along with screenwriter Nicholas Martin manages to build lots of tension when Jenkins somehow gets the opportunity to do a concert at Carnegie Hall and Bayfield must keep a devastating Earl Wilson review from the New York Post away from her. Every time the incomparable Streep (heading I think for her 20th Oscar nomination with this performance) as Jenkins opens her mouth and hits one of her sour notes I cracked up. Streep is just hilarious, as is the film, but what really makes it work is it is also heartfelt and real. It’s her love of music that overpowers everything and makes this wonderful grown up movie as touching as it is funny and entertaining.
It could have been overly broad, but never goes there thanks to smart casting and great work from Frears, a sophisticated filmmaker of true stories like Philomena and The Queen who knows exactly what he is doing. Grant proves again what a sophisticated and terrific comedy actor he is.It is hard to imagine any actors in these roles other than Streep and Grant who have great on-screen chemistry. Helberg is ideal casting and, believe it or not, does all his own piano playing live. His deadpan facial expressions upon hearing those screeching musical notes are worth the price of admission. I predict right now this film will be a hit and that worries me because what if it brings Florence Foster Jenkins back on the charts?
Producers are Michael Kuhn and Tracey Seaward. Paramount Pictures releases the film on Friday , and it is welcome counter-programming for the hot summer months.
Do you plan to see Florence Foster Jenkins? Let us know what you think.