‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ Review: Meryl Streep Is Really Good at Singing Badly
On October 25, 1944, a 76-year-old socialite who had absolutely no vocal talent sold out Carnegie Hall in two hours. Florence Foster Jenkins had no pitch, no sense of rhythm, and couldn’t hold a tune for her life. Yet audiences flocked to the theater that night to witness the spectacle of a woman blissfully unaware of her lack of talent.
In Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins, Meryl Streep portrays the titular socialite who funded her music career with her family inheritance. We meet Florence later in her life, yet she’s a woman still bubbling with the glee of a little girl. In an early scene Florence, wide-eyed with a mouth slightly agape, watches a young woman sing beautifully on stage at the opera, like a child staring at a dream dollhouse in a toy shop window. Played by Streep with a remarkable mix of plucky élan and earnest passion, Florence is a woman with dreams only made possible by wealth and the devotion of her longtime partner and husband, St. Clair Bayfield (played with a charming grace by Hugh Grant).
He helps Florence hold auditions for a pianist to accompany her voice lessons given by the conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, Carlo Edwards (David Haig). Both positions come with handsome salaries, and Bayfield makes a habit out of secretly slipping various people extra cash to make sure they play along. While he never admits it, he knows Florence can't sing. But her new pianist Cosme McMoon, (a hilarious Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory), like us, has no idea what he’s gotten himself into.
The first time Streep opens her mouth to sing it sounds like a flock of geese wailing as they slowly die a painful death. It’s not just bad, it’s downright atrocious, the kind of hyperbolically awful singing you’d emit when childishly making fun of the opera. And yet Florence sings with pure sincerity. That’s part of her allure; she’s a woman with so much passion it blinds her from the truth. Bayfield helps shield her from it as well. He only lets her play private performances with audiences of hand-picked “music fans,” which are actually Florence’s closest friends and elderly women of hard hearing. He shuts out the real music critics and only reads her the kind reviews, mostly written by their acquaintances. Bayfield’s protection never seems to come from a place of pity, but rather a place of genuine love.
We eventually learn Florence is ill and has been living with syphilis, which she contracted from her first husband years before. The real Jenkins lived a tragic life despite eventually acquiring enough wealth to live out her dreams, and while she seems like a figure of delusional privilege, Streep brings an earnestness and a humbleness to this woman. We never really feel bad for her because the character doesn’t let us. Steep’s Florence is constantly on the move, working tirelessly towards a career so baffling that you can’t help but admire her gusto.
Jenkins' story offers many opportunities to invite the audience’s pity, but Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin never take the bait. Instead of mocking his heroine, Frears turns Florence Foster Jenkins into a work of tender and cheerful celebration. Frears doesn’t poke and demean her like a cruel American Idol audition. Instead, he approaches her story with the same kind of earnest appreciation that Jenkins brought to her music.
That said, Streep and Frears also aren’t afraid to let us laugh at Florence, because how can you not? Florence’s terrible singing is a source of constant delight. Streep brings so much talent to a talentless woman that it makes you wonder, what does it mean to be talented after all? Is it maintaining perfect technique, or is it the ability to entertain? Many characters interpret Florence’s singing in the movie as intentional satire. The film suggests that enjoyment of bad art can come from a place of genuine pleasure.
Florence Foster Jenkins is filled with feel-good pleasures. Besides marveling at Streep’s awkward singing, there’s a fantastic swing dance scene with Grant – like his Love, Actually dance scene, this one is also a refreshing break from his polished character. There’s a handful of hilarious moments courtesy of Helberg, whose facial reactions to Florence’s voice are like an reflection (and exaggeration) of our own. The supporting cast also includes Rebecca Ferguson as Kathleen, Bayfield’s girlfriend (he explains to Cosme he and Florence have a sort of “understanding”). Ferguson isn’t given much to do, but she makes an impression, and is clearly an actress who flourishes in a period piece.
At its heart, Florence Foster Jenkins is about a woman at her most unabashedly genuine, and there’s something admirable about that. Frears finds what’s so odd and wonderful about this person – the thing that filled Carnegie Hall and had radio listeners requesting her record again and again – and brings it to the screen. The result is an utterly delightful film you can’t help but smile at.