Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by Stephen Frears, 1 h 50 min
If you’ve seen the trailers, you may think this is just a silly movie about a self-deluded eccentric who thinks she's a great singer. Her caterwauling seems to be the shallow crux of the movie.
And for the first half of the film, which is based on a true story, that’s what you get. But Florence Foster Jenkins is played by Meryl Streep, and she holds your attention with her subtle skills. Hugh Grant is perfectly cast as St. Clair Bayfield, her louche, enabling husband who makes sure that her audience is tone deaf and critics are paid off not to mock her.
Her entourage happily leeches off her inherited wealth. Bayfield lives with his girlfriend in an apartment Jenkins bought for him. Her horrified piano accompanist receives a generous weekly stipend. The conductor of the Metropolitan Opera is paid to give her enthusiastic, though ineffective, voice lessons, but he won’t attend any of her public performances. Even, the great composer Arturo Toscanini benefits from her largesse.
This is all moderately amusing, but then there is a dramatic turn. Jenkins collapses after a performance, and a doctor is summoned. He sees scarring on her back and asks when she contracted syphilis. “On my wedding night. I was 18,” she tells him. Suddenly Florence’s laughable life isn’t so funny anymore.
The second half of the film deals with serious, relatable, issues. She has lived with her disease for 50 years, more than twice the life expectancy for the normal course of the disease. She tells Bayfield that she lives for music. That is literally true - music has prolonged her life. Florence has instinctively latched on to her own reality that makes life worth living. In her mind, she sings like an angel. Does how we cope require objective proof?
As for her artistic merits, Jenkins may have been decades ahead of her time. Her voice and staging would later be considered performance art. Think of Andy Warhol’s mundane installations or the shrieking voice of Yoko Ono. The epilogue informs you that her recordings are the most-requested of Carnegie Hall’s vast catalogue. So what is art? Must it be sensually pleasing, or is being provocative enough? There is no question that Florence gets your attention.
Besides raising these essential questions, “Florence Foster Jenkins” is good moviemaking. There is, of course, Streep, accepting a challenge as she has done throughout her career. The supporting cast is strong. Simon Hellberg plays the delightfully and truly named Cosmé McMoon with just the right amount of deference and amazement. The vastly talented Nina Arianda, who had a stunning debut on Broadway in “Venus in Fur," nearly steals the movie as Agnes Stark, the brassy showgirl with a sugar daddy husband. And Jenkins's creaky audience, festooned with jewelry and musty formal wear, feels particularly authentic.
“Give the girl a break,” the showgirl yells at a mocking crowd. This movie deserves a break too. It’s much more than mere silliness.