Stephen Frears’ film Florence Foster Jenkins is story of a New York socialite who was convinced that she is an opera singer of considerable talent and who used her wealth to inflict her tuneless renditions on New York high society.
Meryl Streep plays Florence whose husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a self-declared “actor and monolist”, played by Hugh Grant, protects her from the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism.
The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg plays Cosme McMoon, her accompanist who is happy, like all those around Florence, to accept her largess.
Eventually Florence’s delusional pride overtakes her and she hires Carnegie Hall for a concert. Despite St. Clair’s best efforts, she cannot be sheltered from the criticism that her appalling performance generates. She dies shortly afterwards, still deluded but happy.
And that’s it. It is not much of a plot
The great strength of this film is the brilliant performances by the three lead actors. Helberg’s Cosme spends the entire film suspended between delight that he is being paid so well to accompany someone and disbelief that she sings so badly.
The terrible thing about the film is that we have to listen to Florence singing. She is truly appalling and she sings a lot. People were walking out of the session that we attended.
The film is full of droll humour and the role of St. Clair Bayfield plays to all of will Hugh Grant’s strengths. Meryl Streep captures Florence’s blissful delusion perfectly. In the wrong hands, this character could have become either a grotesque caricature or a figure of fun. Florence is neither. As Streep plays her, Florence is generous and goodhearted without a malicious bone in her body.
But the film falls short, primarily because it is a comedy and while Florence is the subject of indulgent and gentle good humour, this precludes the film from examining the underpinnings of this American cultural dream.
I cannot stop comparing the story of Florence Foster Jenkins with that of another great American dreamer, Jay Gatsby, and I suspect that in different hands, this film could have been so much better.