At this point in her career as a critic I can safely say that if Meryl Streep is in a film go see it! Basically the woman can do no wrong. Yes, it does depend somewhat on the calibre of the material she is given to work with and the director, but in this instance when it is quirky and the marvellous Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen) is in charge you have nothing to worry about.
New York heiress Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep – Into the Woods, Sophie’s Choice) is an odd woman living an odd life. Odd in the sense of non-traditional. Her marriage to handsome and charismatic Brit St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant – Four Weddings and a Funeral, About a Boy) is not your typical one in that they have never had sexual relations with him claiming that her syphilis is too dangerous and as such he maintains another household with the young and beautiful Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Hercules – 2014) yet they are devoted to one another.
Another layer of oddness is her desire to be an opera singer despite the fact that she has a terrible voice. This desire sprung out of her talent as a young girl as a concert pianist who dreamed of playing at Carnegie Hall. Being stricken with syphilis due to her first husband ended that dream. Now, she has transferred it onto singing. Despite her awful voice her husband indulges her and protects her from any mocking or bad reviews by stacking the crowds she plays in front of with people he has hand selected and critics that have been paid off. As such, Florence forges forward in her dream.
St Clair really has no intention of ever allowing her to actually play at Carnegie Hall, but a weekend away with Kathleen puts a monkey wrench into that plan. When he returns from the weekend he discovers that she has rented out Carnegie Hall and already given away 1,000 tickets to soldiers fighting in World War II. There is no way to put a stop to it and he and the pianist hired to accompany Florence, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg – from television’s The Big Bang Theory), realize this is going to be an unmitigated disaster that could destroy the woman of fragile health.
Amazingly the film is based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins. In real life she had to give up her dreams of being a concert pianist due to an arm injury as the result of a car accident. It also plays heavily upon the theme of little white lies that all of us perpetuate in relationships to keep them going. How big and involved those little lies become is the question. Do we do it for love? Is it inherently for ourselves? These questions form the backbone of this delightful, sometimes moving and often uproariously funny film.
What is the most amazing aspect of Streep’s performance in the title role is her ability to sing so awfully…and maintain a straight face. We all know due to her involvement in films like Mama Mia and Into the Woods that the woman can sing, so for her to be so flat, sharp, etc. in this role is rather amazing. To take it a step further she has to sing badly convincingly. Meaning, as Florence she has to bring to the screen a character who does not seem to realize how awful her voice is.
Meryl Streep, in a role that involves a delicate comedic touch, is not the only one of the cast who turns in a strong performance. Hugh Grant, whose career has been rather up and down of late, is perfectly cast as the doting husband who is also an adulterous scoundrel. His natural charisma and likeability is played upon heavily in order for the audience to actually like a man they really shouldn’t. Using that charm that he built the early part of his career upon Grant is able to navigate these treacherous waters effectively. Comedic actor Simon Helberg also is notable in his rather stylized portrayal of man of ambiguous sexuality. Every scene he is in Helberg adds to. Even when he is acting alone with la Streep, which is quite an accomplishment. It is a tricky little role which he handles marvellously even in the more dramatic moments.
When you add in the great touch of veteran director Stephen Frears, the beautiful cinematography of Danny Cohen (The Danish Girl, Room) and the lavish sets and costumes you get a solid comedy with plenty of heart.