An unexpectedly poignant effort from the ever-inconsistent Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena), a game Meryl Streep and strong supporting cast push the bizarre material past mean-spirited mockery to make this musical drama an affectionate monument to both the human spirit and the nature of art in all its forms.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a New York heiress who, despite having no apparent singing ability either natural or trained, perseveres and becomes an opera singer thanks to her vast financial resources, all while her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) carefully protects her vanity behind the scenes and newly-hired pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) watches it all unfold in utter disbelief.
While it would have been easy for such a premise to become a 110-minute joke about a syphilitic New York socialite who can’t sing but she thinks she can, screenwriter Nicholas Martin dares to take things further, riffing on the reasons we make, consume and critique art, all while encompassing Jenkins’ complex relationship with Bayfield with surprising poignance.
Much like Eddie the Eagle from earlier in the year, this is a movie not about talent but heart and passion, and how people respond to such fervent dedication, because who doesn’t love an underdog? Similarly, the film touches on Jenkins’ unique position, being able to indulge singing so enthusiastically due to her vast finances, allowing her ignorance to proceed virtually unimpeded.
Streep is, of course, terrific in the title role, ensuring to carefully balance the tone such that we may laugh at Florence, but we also appreciate the human being underneath; light and frothy though the movie may be marketed as, there’s a deep undercurrent of sadness percolating beneath that’s touched on every now and then to potent effect. It may not be big enough of a performance to earn even the much-loved Streep awards consideration, but it’s easily some of her best and most enjoyable work of the last few years.
Hugh Grant is also highly compelling here in some of his best-ever work, dealt a complicated character who eschews slimy husband stereotypes with ease to form a far more complex and intriguing character; no matter his indiscretions, this is a man who, for better and perhaps for worse, loves his wife. The Big Bang Theory’s Helberg is also plenty charming as the bunny-stunned observer to all this madness, in many ways the audience substitute who guides us through the circus.
Upending expectations with a deep-yet-breezy examination of the human condition, Florence Foster Jenkins may not land among Streep’s better all-time works, but its heart and restraint are to be commended.
Florence Foster Jenkins is in UK cinemas now and US cinemas August 12th