In real life, Florence Foster Jenkins' life was one marked by early tragedy yet lived into with what could only be called pizzazz, a lifelong effort to live into a gift for music that, if one is being honest, she never truly possessed.
Yet, maybe she did.
The tragedy, by no means a cinematic spoiler, was the attraction of syphilis as a teenager and newlywed, a marriage largely entered into by a spiteful Florence upset over her wealthy father's refusal to fund her music studies. It was the late 19th century, a time when a diagnosis of syphilis meant a significantly shortened life expectancy with treatments existing of only arsenic and mercury, treatments with tremendous side effects. She would support herself as a piano teacher until an arm injury largely ended her ability to play. Surviving only due to the support of her mother, Florence would flounder in poverty until meeting St. Clair Bayfield, a Shakespearean actor of average talent who would become her manager and life companion. It was in that same year, when Florence was 41-years-old and had already outlived her life expectancy, that Florence's father would pass away and leave her with enough funds to support her long desired musical endeavors.
Florence's life would never be the same, nor would the lives of many of New York City's finest musical names as Florence Foster Jenkins would become their friend, their supporter, their benefactor and, yes, through them she would live into her lifelong musical dreams supported by her chaste yet faithful relationship with Bayfield.
By now, it comes as no surprise when Meryl Streep, rather easily described as Hollywood's grand dame, manages to pull yet another magnificent performance out of her seemingly endless repertoire of characterizations. To know Florence Foster Jenkins is to see her come fully alive in the hilarious, inspiring, emotionally rich and compelling performance of Streep, who somehow manages to once again plumb the depths of a character's soul with grace and tenderness and intelligence and such compassion that even when you're laughing at Florence, and you will, you are completely inspired by her.
While contemporary audiences may not fully understand the impact of syphilis on one's mind and body in the late 19th century and early 20th century, it's clear that Streep has researched every possibility and every likelihood and, simply put, every single way that the disease likely played out in Florence's wife. While it is possible, and appropriate, to enjoy and laugh and giggle at the tonally derelict woman's hilariously godawful performances, Streep never lets us forget the humanity behind that voice and the tragedy behind that humanity. A known gifted singer, Streep immerses herself in singing badly yet humanely, refusing to turn Jenkins into a joke yet somehow still finding the humor in it all.
Streep is, it would seem, the queen of late summer cinema, with efforts such as Ricki and the Flash, The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia!, and Julie & Julia all playing out in the late summer season, a time when difficult to market films seem to find their way to the multiplexes in advance of the year's most highly anticipated and expected awards contenders. Florence Foster Jenkins isn't likely to be one of the year's most highly praised films, though it's an extraordinary vehicle for Streep and could very well find her welcoming yet another well deserved Oscar nomination. A musical biopic with an inspirational message, simply put to "Be yourself!," Florence Foster Jenkins is the kind of film we would call an indie gem if we didn't know that it was being distributed by Paramount Pictures here in the U.S.
In addition to Streep's wonderful performance, Florence Foster Jenkins offers longtime romantic leading man Hugh Grant his most rewarding and satisfying role in years as St. Clair Bayfield, a man whose loyalty to Florence is without question even as we witness his apartment getaway, funded by Florence, that he shares with his longtime companion (Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson). Grant wisely doesn't minimize or trivialize the almost jarring presence of this relationship, yet Nicholas Martin's insightful and sensitive script also gives us just enough hints that Florence was likely aware while living in a healthy state of denial about the apartment and its occupants.
As Cosme' McMoon, Florence's loyal pianist in lessons and recitals, The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg is the film's scene-stealer, embodying Helberg with a boyish charm with hints of naughtiness, ample doses of deep compassion and barely held in giggles. While it is with McMoon's character that Martin's script falls a tad short, at times hinting at homosexuality yet never really quite having the balls to go there, Helberg's performance here is the kind of performance that should make filmmakers be dialing up Helberg's agent in the very near future.
As a cinematic character, Florence Foster Jenkins exists somewhere in the world between Ed Wood and American Idol's William Hung, though it's worth noting that Jenkins' Verdi Club performances are fact not fiction and her popularity, admittedly influenced by financial generosity and a genuine affection for the performance, is well documented and an incredibly strange yet wonderful footnote in American musical history. While Florence did, in real life, have her detractors even before the Carnegie Hall performance that would serve as her one and only genuinely open to the public performance, Florence Foster Jenkins is remarkably faithful in its presentation of a life, marked by challenge yet beautifully lived into by a woman who could say without complete conviction "People may say I can't sing," she said, "but no one can ever say I didn't sing."
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic