Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person, sort of the William Hung of her day. She was a patron of the arts, a society matron who sponsored many musical events. She was also completely delusional about her own talent. Her husband, a failed actor who presumably married her for her money, became devoted to her and did everything he could to help her pursue her dream.
It’s a tricky subject to make a movie about. Jenkins, played by Meryl Streep, is a figure of comedy and pathos–we laugh at her, not with her, and we also feel sorry for her. When Streep first sings, which is a little bit into the film, kind of like the first sighting of the shark in Jaws, one is induced into gales of laughter. But when we see others laugh at her, we kind of get outraged. It’s the skill of Streep, director Stephen Frears, and screenwriter Nicholas Martin that though there are sideshow elements of Florence Foster Jenkins, the emotion that most comes through is simple love and loyalty.
I read the Wikipedia article on Jenkins. She was from Philadelphia but adopts a kind of mid-Atlantic rich-people accent. She’s very reminiscent of all the characters Margaret Dumont played in the Marx Brothers’ movies. Some questioned whether she was in on the gag, but this film firmly takes the stance that she was not, and that she lived in a kind of fantasyland. She had a disease which I won’t reveal here that may have contributed to her delusion, but Streep, who continually gives us great performances, manages to create a character that dares us to mock her, and we can’t do it.
The film is, in certain aspects, a comedy. Frears, probably too much, employs the use of the reaction shot, when people first hear her sing. Nina Arianda, for example, playing the trophy wife of a businessman, has to be dragged out of a concert on her knees, laughing so hard. Much of this is given to Simon Hedberg, playing Streep’s mild-mannered pianist, who is too polite and too poor to say what he really thinks, and quietly endures Streep’s screeching and caterwauling (she at times sounds like a squeaky chew toy in the jaws of a dog). But of course he comes to love her, and though he risks his reputation, he decides he will play for her at Carnegie Hall, the climax of the film.
If Streep is the show, it wouldn’t be the same film without Hugh Grant as her husband. He is like Cerberus in keeping reality away from her. He pays off critics (one, Earl Wilson, he is unable to, which leads to crisis), and makes sure that only friends hear her sing. Her decision to play at Carnegie Hall, giving away tickets to servicemen, taxes his abilities. But Grant also has a girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson) stashed in an apartment (this part does not seem to be historically accurate). He tells Hedberg that Streep and he have an understanding, but when she unexpectedly arrives at said apartment, there is some use of closets in hiding places.
Florence Foster Jenkins is also lovely to look at it, with period costumes, cars, and decor, and for the ridiculous opera costumes that Streep wears. I expect some Oscar nominations there, and it’s a slam dunk even now that Streep is nominated. Grant also has an excellent chance. It’s a lovely film with a lovely message.