Greetings again from the darkness. Stranger than fiction. No more fitting description can be provided for the true-to-life story of 1940’s New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins. How else to describe this “opera singer” who performed at Carnegie Hall? Not so unusual you say? Well how about if I add the not-so-minor detail(s) that the lady, simply put, was an atrocious singer … couldn’t carry a note … was apparently tone deaf?
Meryl Streep gamely takes on the titular role, and despite her own finely honed singing voice, manages to spot-on mimic the off-key, yet enthusiastic wailing of FFJ. Beyond that, Ms. Streep captures the spirit and passion and ego that inspired her real life counterpart to pursue her lofty dreams. At her core, FFJ was a tortured soul who overcame syphilis (from her first husband) and the central nervous system challenges brought on by the mercury and arsenic treatments of the era. On the outside, she was a bubbly, eccentric personality who supported the arts and lived life to the fullest.
With inheritances from both her mother and father, Florence received full professional support (and emotional protection) from her common-law husband St Clair Bayfield – played superbly by the seldom seen these days Hugh Grant. Accompanying Florence on stage, and even composing music with her, was her piano player Cosme McMoon, in a scene-stealing performance from Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”). Also in the mix is Rebecca Ferguson as Bayfield’s mistress … did I mention how strange this story is? Other support work is provided by David Haig as FFJ’s singing coach, and Nina Arianda as … well … an interesting character.
Other than the cast, those responsible for this delightful cinematic experience are director Stephen Frears (Oscar nominated for The Queen and The Grifters), writer Nicholas Martin, and cinematographer Danny Cohen (Room, The King’s Speech). It’s a confounding movie … on the surface quite jovial and light-hearted, while also reaching emotional depths that touch on loyalty, greed, and self-delusion.
The recordings made by Florence are rare collectibles today, and the film does touch on her time as child prodigy who played piano at The White House during the Rutherford B Hayes administration. There are many life lessons here, including pursuing your dreams with a passion, and having the tenacity to overcome obstacles. There is an undeniable underlying sadness to the story, but rather than feel sorry for her, Florence provided the guiding light quote, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”