Florence Foster Jenkins is yet another triumph for the spectacular Meryl Streep but more intriguingly for Hugh Grant. Streep plays the lead character, a wealthy patron of the NYC musical scene in the 30s and 40s who loves to sing complicated arias and give small private concerts. Hugh Grant plays her common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield, who encourages her pursuit of singing while hiding the truth about her terrible voice from her through bribery and clever maneuvering. There is a comedic element of the movie mostly focused on Simon Helberg who is hired as her accompanist despite being horrified at the notes coming from Florence’s mouth. He is wonderful. Nina Arianda who gains strength through the movie as a wealthy man’s “hussy” second wife also is quite funny. She leaves her first “Florence” concert in uncontrollable laughter but by the end is one of her biggest supporters.
The movie itself can be tough to listen to at times with Streep (who has a beautiful voice) hitting all of those horrific notes but the tender love story between Florence, her husband, friends and the broader public makes up for it. Hugh Grant’s performance is surprisingly good as he sells us on his aristocratic character and the compassion he has for his wife. St. Clair and Jenkins never consummated their marriage due to her syphilis from her first husband yet maintained a true (albeit unusual) love affair. St. Clair had a separate apartment with his lover (unbeknownst to Jenkins) but his first devotion was to his wife. Who knew he had it in him to play this “kept” man who spent each day totally focused on Florence’s happiness with such deftness and complexity. We get a quick glance into Grant’s prior roles in an enjoyable dance sequence but that is the only reminder of this Rom Com king.
I have a couple of minor quibbles with the film like what is with the thick book that is Jenkins’s will and why with all her money did St. Claire lived out the rest of his life modestly according to the footnotes at the end of the film. I never quite understood why people outside the NYC music community embraced her with such passion – in the film it just magically happened. The movie drags occasionally and could have been a bit shorter and Streep’s singing can be tough to take (at least we didn’t have to hear it for the first 30 minutes of the film) but I think most people will enjoy this movie and appreciate how difficult it must have been for Streep to hit those notes. She apparently had to have a vocal coach “unteach” her to be so flat. One also has to appreciate the film’s hair and make-up artist who does a masterful job in converting Streep into a dowdy, plump heiress. Florence Foster Jenkins once said something to the effect that “I may not be able to sing but people have heard me sing” and after this movie, we can add a few million to the original number.