Florence Foster Jenkins might have not been remember at all if not for her questionable Carnegie Hall performance. Her life was a great tragedy and director Stephen Frears handles her story with great sensitivity in this Golden Globe-nominated comedy-drama “Florence Foster Jenkins.”
At one time, Florence Foster Jenkins was Narcissa Florence Foster (1868-1944), the only child who lived to adulthood of a wealthy Pennsylvania family. As Little Miss Foster, she performed at the White House, playing piano. She eloped and married Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins (1852-1917), but she contracted syphilis from him. She left him and supposedly divorced him.
The movie begins in 1944 in New York City at a posh performance venue. Florence is already in her mid-seventies. She has lived with syphilis for nearly sixty years. Despite being in the midst of World War II, Florence feels that “music matters more than ever” and at part of the Verdi Club which she founded, she is part of extravagant tableaus, taking roles that might have called for a lighter, lither and younger actor. Instead, Florence, a meaty older woman is precariously hefted into the air, taking considerable effort backstage.
The program’s emcee is her second husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), an English Shakespearean actor of questionable talent. Due to her medical circumstances, Florence and St. Clair refrain from sexual contact and live in different residences. She has an apartment in New York City. He has a house where he keeps his secret mistress, Kathleen Weatherley (Rebecca Ferguson).
Under another director, with another writer or with a different ensemble, we might have been laughing at the misperceptions made by Florence as she works toward her infamous public performance. Yet writer Nicholas Martin and director Stephen Frears (“The Queen” and “Philomena”) and Streep, Grant and Simon Helberg give a bittersweet remembrance of a lovely woman who was doomed by marital misfortune and the misadventures with the medical practices of the day.
One might be tempted to judge St. Clair as a cad, but the script clearly indicates he has an affection for her. When Florence decides to resume singing lessons with her vocal coach Carlo Edwards (David Haig), she and St. Clair audition various pianists, settling on Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) who soon learns that Florence caterwauling is not to be criticized, ever.
Cosmé’s transformation from incredulous mercenary musician to a protector who aids St. Clair illustrates the kind of tenderness that one imagines shaped St. Clair’s every moment of marriage. Through Cosmé we also learn that Florence was once musically talented as a piano player and teacher. As she and Cosmé become closer, they write and perform their original songs. Cosmé also learns that Florence once hid bad reviews from St. Clair, much as St. Clair protects her.
Yet during a weekend of inattention when St. Clair has taken his mistress away, Florence arranges for records to be pressed and gives them away. One of these recordings makes it on to the radio and becomes the source of amusement. Not fully comprehending the reason for the recording’s popularity, Florence books Carnegie Hall for a performance, donating hundreds of tickets to military servicemen.
Cosmé is terrified that the performance will ruin his career, however, St. Clair convinces him otherwise, that at least he will have played Carnegie Hall.
Historically, Florence died five days after the concert and the movie also portrays this, giving her some semblance of justice and suggests that with the medications and complications of syphilis, she heard herself differently.
Streep is, as always, first rate. Her Florence is flighty, flutterly, but has glints of steel. You can see the dim lights of promise that the young Florence once had. Grant holds his own against Streep, shedding the charming cad role to expose a loving caretaker. This is one of his best performances. Helberg’s face and frame bubble with suppressed emotions that range from horror to hysteria. He almost steals the scene from Streep. Together, these three form a beautiful ensemble that trips on the border of hilarity while dipping their toes into tragedy.
This is a movie for all of us who dreamed of performing and never did or were never quite good enough or choked in front of audiences. For those karaoke regulars, this movie may poke at that hidden secret desire and for those who only sing in the dark, alone, this movie will have you cheering for someone who couldn’t and shouldn’t but did.
In “Florence Foster Jenkins,” money made it happen, but her kindness and her tragedy inspired a beautiful endearing love and, again, it is heartless critics who are the villains of this movie. That’s a lesson to all of us about kindness, friendship and art. In her imperfect performances, Florence Foster Jenkins was courageous and beautiful and this movie is a happy, almost triumphant celebration of her final days.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” has been nominated for four Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy), Hugh Grant for Best Actor (Musical or Comedy), Meryl Streep for Best Actress (Musical or Comedy) and Simon Helberg for Best Supporting Actor.