Lawrence Toppman

‘Florence Foster Jenkins:’ You’ll laugh with her AND at her

A clueless diva (Meryl Streep) enjoys her bizarre singing “career” in “Florence Foster Jenkins.”
A clueless diva (Meryl Streep) enjoys her bizarre singing “career” in “Florence Foster Jenkins.” TNS

Sometimes a passel of small lies reveals a large truth. “Florence Foster Jenkins” takes liberties in every scene yet adds up to a moving depiction of a woman who spent her life chasing an impossible dream.

FFJ loved the sound of the human voice, specifically her own. In that, she stood alone: Her squonks and screeches, immortalized in recordings shortly before her death in 1944, gave audiences fits of stifled hilarity. But her civic generosity, good nature and kindness to young artists kept her in a cocoon of friends’ approval, until she gave a public concert at Carnegie Hall. Critics acknowledged her dedication, disparaged her singing, and she never performed again.

Writer Nicholas Martin and director Stephen Frears focus on the last year of her life. The aged FFJ (Meryl Streep) lives contentedly with St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), an undistinguished British actor who abandoned his career to marry, manage and tend her. It’s a menage a quatre: Bayfield keeps a mistress, while some corner of FFJ’s heart is permanently reserved for her muse.

Bayfield finds an ideal accompanist in pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, looking and twitching like the Mad Hatter). Now FFJ believes she’s ready to go beyond her tolerant friends in the Verdi Club and sing for the world at large. Bayfield and McMoon try to dissuade her, the former out of love and the latter out of self-love.

The film plays as loose with facts as FFJ did with notes. By 1944, McMoon was no sniggering novice anxious about his reputation as a serious artist; he had accompaned her for more than a decade and treated her with respect. Bayfield’s mistress never left him; critics never reviewed FFJ prior to Carnegie Hall; Earl Wilson didn’t pan her in the New York Post after 30 seconds of one song; Arturo Toscanini didn’t beg for money to pull off a concert. (In 1944, he was the most famous conductor in the world.)

But if you don’t confuse this with history – or with the French film “Marguerite,” a fictional piece loosely based on FFJ – you’ll come away touched. That’s mostly because of Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.

Streep, who has musical training, brilliantly recreates FFJ’s wayward warblings. (We hear her real voice in a fantasy sequence, which shows how FFJ hears herself.) She plays a fond, dotty old woman, but FFJ is distinct from, say, Julia Child in “Julia and Julia.” Streep’s 20th Oscar nomination will no doubt follow.

Hugh Grant, who’s just 19 shy of her at this point, delivers the best work of his career. Across that tight-lipped face, with its downcast eyes and wary smile, pass shame at his need for another woman, protective affection for FFJ and anxiety that others think him a well-rewarded gigolo. For good or ill, we wouldn’t have had FFJ without Bayfield. And Streep wouldn’t have been as good as she is without Grant by her side.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Florence Foster Jenkins

Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg.

Director: Stephen Frears.

Length: 110 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (brief suggestive material).

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