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Florence Foster Jenkins: Sing, And the World Will Embrace You

This good-hearted tale of a terrible singer sidesteps deeper issues of our fascination with bad art.

At an early age, we might be told that we have some special talent that makes us stand out from the crowd—but sometimes the thing we love doing may not be something we’re particularly good at. Such is the setup for Florence Foster Jenkins, based on the true story of a 1940s New York socialite who fancied herself an amazing singer. She adored opera, feeling the music to her core, but try as she might she couldn’t sing a lick. The fact no one had the heart to tell her was both touching and pathetic, and director Stephen Frears has made a likeable, affecting movie out of that dilemma, but the film itself could benefit from a little of the tough love that Jenkins never received in her own life. 

Meryl Streep plays Jenkins, who lives in a fabulous Manhattan hotel, her wealth abundant in her tremendous gowns and lavish furniture. She’s married to her second husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant)—her first husband died years ago, giving her syphilis along the way—and she’s recently hired a new young pianist, the nebbishy Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), to help her prepare for her next public performance. Once McMoon discovers how awful her voice is, he tries to back out of the commitment, but her husband convinces him to stay because, as he explains, Jenkins lives for her music. Even though Bayfield has a mistress on the side (Rebecca Ferguson), he loves Jenkins and wants to encourage her. If anyone admitted that she was an atrocious singer, well, it would crush the elderly woman’s sweet spirit.

Frears (The Queen, Philomena) applies his usual smart, reserved approach to the material. Florence Foster Jenkins is inordinately tasteful—its costumes and period detail are exquisite, and Alexandre Desplat’s score boasts a light, jazzy sophistication. But all that gentility comes at a price, for although Nicholas Martin’s screenplay touches on plenty of potentially thorny themes, the movie tends to glance over them. At its core, Florence Foster Jenkins is a bizarre tale of accidental notoriety, but the filmmakers are so concerned with telling a nice story that they don’t always tell a great one.

Biopics as different as Ed Wood and The Damned United have chronicled public failure, showing how even the most driven of individuals can sometimes produce embarrassments. Florence Foster Jenkins doesn’t have a similar killer instinct. Instead it floats on the breezy surface of its intriguing setup. We watch as Jenkins is insulated by those around her into believing she’s a talent. It’s easy to see why they’d play along: Despite her delusion, she’s a kindly woman who hasn’t been corrupted by wealth and has a genuine appreciation for music. Plus, she’s dying, the effects of 50 years of syphilis at last taking its toll on her. It’s clear that Bayfield, a failed actor, married her decades ago for her money, but even he sees her innate goodness, and Grant does a marvelous job of humanizing a character that could come across as just a coldhearted bastard.

Not wanting to hurt her feelings—and perhaps wanting to assuage his guilt over his ongoing infidelity—Bayfield orchestrates an elaborate scheme to keep his wife convinced she’s an accomplished singer. When she wants to perform, he takes pains to ensure that ticket buyers will consist only of sympathetic individuals, turning away cynics, hipsters, and—most importantly—newspaper critics. But when he indulges her desire to record a single just for herself, the decision comes back to haunt him once copies get out into the world, her woeful singing generating plenty of attention. Some are amused by her tone-deaf performance, while others seem to respond to the unvarnished authenticity of her flawed instrument. Whatever the reason, a demand for more Jenkins songs provokes her to organize her dream concert at Carnegie Hall without her husband’s knowledge. At long last, he will not be able to protect her from humiliation.

Streep, who last summer capably played an aging rocker in Ricki and the Flash, has plenty of fun singing terribly in Florence Foster Jenkins, capturing the woman’s pure joy in performing, which is almost in direct opposition to her actual talent. The three-time Oscar-winner can sometimes overdo Jenkins’ vocal terribleness, but there’s never a moment when she wants us to think that Jenkins is a fool. Streep generates such happy energy as Jenkins that we see both her indomitability and fragility. This isn’t a top-shelf performance, but that’s something of a relief considering that Streep’s penchant for grandiosity would crush such an unassuming, simple character.

If anything, the movie belongs to Grant, who hasn’t been this good in quite some time. Bayfield is a selfish enabler, cheering on Jenkins’ ambition in part because he wants to keep his meal ticket content. But Grant keeps revealing Bayfield’s stubborn conscience, repeatedly coming to his wife’s defense when anyone might mock her. Bayfield has an odd integrity to him: Yes, he may be having an affair, but if anything, his unfaithfulness makes him even more aware of Florence’s decency and generosity. He’s proud of her willingness to keep pursuing her dream when he gave up on his own so long ago. Now in his mid-50s, Grant is no longer boyishly handsome, and age has done wonders to his features, giving him the appearance of a pinup who now has some wear and tear on him. Consequently, his turn as Bayfield is flecked with a poignant nobility. The character may be a cad, but one way or another, he’s determined to prove worthy of the undying affection Jenkins has for him—even if it means perpetuating her delusion.

Florence Foster Jenkins doesn’t sugarcoat a terrible voice, but it does argue that the courage to express yourself should be celebrated. As a result, Jenkins is heroic almost despite herself—her commitment to her passion, no matter how misguided, earns her the respect of those close to her. (This includes McMoon, who is played annoyingly broadly by Helberg, the character’s every cutesy nervous affectation the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.)

But Frears lacks the edge required to really explore the film’s central ideas. No matter why people responded to her singing—either with maliciousness or curiosity—society’s fascination with demonstrably “bad” art speaks to the unacknowledged complicated relationship we have with artists. Does our envy of the truly gifted provoke us to react so viscerally when something indisputably awful crosses our path? And if the work provokes a response in us, is it truly bad? Is it better to be honest with those we love who are chasing dreams that won’t be fulfilled? Or is endless encouragement—despite all evidence to the contrary that it will help—actually a greater demonstration of love?

Florence Foster Jenkins brings up these questions, but is too enraptured with Streep’s intentionally bad singing and the unbelievable twists in Jenkins’ story to ponder the implications. Perhaps Frears feared that going deeper, as well as darker, would deflate the pleasant atmosphere he’s created. In the end, it’s the film’s nagging limitation: By aiming for a crowd-pleasing tone, Florence Foster Jenkins coddles its audience in much the same way Bayfield did his beloved.   

Grade: B-

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on filmFollow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site