They say that the one percent live in a bubble, a fantasy world with problems that are different from yours and mine. Consequently they become strange and somewhat out of touch with reality. This was never any truer for anyone then for Florence Foster Jenkins, a real society matron in New York during the 30’s and 40’s, here played by Meryl Streep.
A classical music lover all her life, Jenkins generously gives to operas and orchestras in the city. But she longs to be on the stage. When she was younger, she taught piano and had ambitions of being a concert pianist but an accident damaged the nerves in her left hand. Now she has turned her attention to singing. The only problem is that she can’t sing. Her voice is flat and piercing like a damaged air raid siren.
Because of her generosity, she knows all the great classical music figures of her time. Arturo Toscanini, played by John Kavanaugh shows up at her doorstep to flatter her and ask for money. She can hire the best professional voice coaches and they will tell her that she is a magnificent talent because she donates so much money.
The perimeter of this bubble is kept intact by Jenkins’ husband St Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant. In his own words Bayfield was a “good but not great” actor, who has given up the stage and devoted his life to keeping up his wife’s delusions. When she wants to give a concert, he books a small salon, recruits an audience that he knows will be respectful and adoring, and bribes critics to give rave reviews.
The problem arises when she books Carnegie Hall and gives hundreds of tickets to returning servicemen who cannot be counted on to suppress their opinions on her performance or to even show up sober. Nor can he keep out New York Post critic Earl Wilson, played by Christian McKay, who cannot be bribed.
In lesser hands the role of Florence Foster Jenkins could have been simply an object of ridicule. But Streep is a master and she brings out not only the vulnerability of the character but also her great heart and strength. She had not been rich all her life. At one point her father disowned her because of her wish to devote herself to music. She supported herself by teaching piano. She’s known personal tragedy and suffers from a medical condition that I will not spoil here. Streep shows us why all these people go to such great lengths to protect her. The scenes where she tries to sing are hilarious but they are also heart-breaking. She tries so hard.
Hugh Grant plays St Clair Bayfield as a slick man of the world, used to greasing palms and talking people around to his point of view. He keeps a mistress. But over the course of film you realize how devoted he is to his wife. When faced with a choice, he chooses her. Grant tones down but doesn’t entirely eliminate his usual mannerisms and delivers a terrific performance.
Simon Helberg, one of the geeks on The Big Bang Theory, plays Cosme’ McMoon, the pianist they hire to accompany Jenkins during her voice lessons and eventually her concerts. He takes the gig for the money, which is quite good. But once he discovers his new boss’s shortcomings, he begins to worry about his reputation. His arc, which Helberg plays masterfully, is about coming around to St Clair’s position. In the end Cosme’ wants to protect her just as much.
There are a couple of loose ends that keep the movie from perfection. Jenkins carries a leather satchel with her at all times and McMoon is instructed to never ask what is in it. When the secret is revealed it’s not that big a deal and doesn’t affect the plot.
But all in all this is a good entertaining film for adults.