110 min. | PG-13
The opening moments of a film have never been more important to a comedy. Florence Foster Jenkins begins with St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) on stage reciting a Hamlet soliloquy with great conviction, and then casually pointing out that he’s never played the title role. It’s self-deprecating, honest and therefore humorous. Moments later Florence (Meryl Streep), attached to a wire, descends from above to inspire her grandfather at the piano while the backstage crew strains to hold her up.
The tone is immediately clear: St. Clair and Florence are performers who take themselves seriously but aren’t particularly good at what they do. Because we like them, and their work is played for humor, it’s okay to laugh at them without feeling mean-spirited.
Based on true events, it’s New York City, 1944. As the war rages overseas, the performing arts become essential relief for those at home. At the heart of the arts scene is Florence, a wealthy socialite who owns and runs The Verdi Club—a Vaudeville type establishment—with her husband, St. Clair.
Florence wants to do more than act in sketches, so she hires a pianist and vocal coach and trains to be an opera singer. She’s terrible at it. She’s also dying of syphilis and St. Clair wants her to fulfill her dream of singing professionally. He enables this dream and makes sure everyone does the same. She becomes immensely popular for the wrong reason, and is the only one oblivious to the truth.
Florence may be the most famous atrocious singer in history, but director Stephen Frears is too kind to suggest she lives in infamy. Instead, he admires her courage and allows us to root for her in spite of her delusions.
Streep doesn’t go over the top in her performance, but her singing as Florence is nails-on-chalkboard grating enough. Streep is nicely supported by Grant as a man who loves her but isn’t in love with her, evident by his fierce devotion to Florence while simultaneously keeping a separate apartment and girlfriend.
Below the surface is an essential question: Were St. Clair and others right to enable Florence to live out her dream as an opera singer, or should they have stopped to spare her the potential embarrassment? You can make a case either way, but either way you can be wrong. The decision St. Clair reaches feels like the right one.
You’d think Florence knew deep down that she was a dreadful singer, but reports suggest taking mercury for syphilis distorted her hearing. Regardless, if people tell her she’s good, why wouldn’t she believe them? This film is the story of a lie for the right reason that’s never morally ambiguous or overtly cruel, which is a filmmaking feat more difficult to accomplish than getting Florence to sing well.