Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person — and a truly appalling singer whose reputation (in the mid-1940s and after) was puffed by her wealth as an heiress and a consort who used that cash to buy off her critics. Above all, she was seemingly unaware of how awful she sounded: the victim perhaps of a psychotic delusion provoked — just perhaps — by the syphilis she contracted from one of her husbands, and to whom, the historical record says, she never spoke again.
That man never appears; her true love is embodied by Grant as St Clair Bayfield, a failed actor who was so mesmerised by Florence (the wonderful Streep) that he spent much of his life shielding her from ridicule and the truth of her screeching appearances. Or so Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Queen) recasts her sad yet funny tale. The truth to reality is blurred. Our sympathies are with Florence and her crazy dreams.
The film raises certain unpleasant reflections — but only in passing. That Florence and her wealth had real effects in New York society at the time is unassailable. Among her purported admirers and supporters is Arturo Toscanini (Kavanagh). When the climax of her ambition is realised by filling Carnegie Hall (not without Bayfield’s open-ended purse) she is first laughed at, then applauded. This is a form of music and the nation is at war (1,000 servicemen were invited in to hear her), and her posthumous reputation has lasted into our age of discord.
A New York critic (McKay) was the sole truth-teller about Florence: yet he seems vicious.
Florence and Bayfield (as we learn) never actually had physical intimacy: she was degraded by her illness and he "by agreement" lived in a separate apartment with his mistress Kathleen (Ferguson). The arrangement appears to have worked well (as why should it not?) until Kathleen’s bitterness surfaces irrevocably when Bayfield expresses and insists on his primary love for Florence — who Frears allows to die listening to cheers.
Integral to the comedy is Florence’s pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Helberg), who is also far from proficient but who gradually comes to understand Florence’s vision of herself as one of the world’s great talents fated to remain unrecognised and scorned. He is a jerky, plodding player who finally accepts his bit role in the serio-comic tale, and becomes wiser.
The film is a French-British production and takes a refreshing tangent away from the blockbusters that tend to stuff the box office — not least by putting on show a splendid array of fine acting (Streep and Grant surpass themselves, perhaps looking ahead to awards, which their professionalism demands).
I have two quibbles.
One is Florence’s disease; it signifies a disordered life long before she became an heiress, but of this there is little hint. Her actual appearances in private do, however, suggest a woman who would long since have been discarded by society were it not for her ability to buy herself into fame. Of course, this may be part of Frears’s intention: the world is full of neglect and disparagement for those with some form of talent they can never display.
Then there is the succubus-like presence of Bayfield, the musically stuttering McMoon, and the thousands who flock to witness her bizarre performances. Surely she would, long before the farce in Carnegie Hall, have had at least a sprinkling of self-awareness of her resources, and of her own shortcomings? Comparisons with true singers signal her illusions.
Unfortunately, that would have removed the comedy — sufficient to entertain without too much dreary pathos.
Florence Foster Jenkins
Directed by Stephen Frears; co-written by Nicholas Martin
Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, John Kavanagh, Christian McKay.