Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep plays the eponymous eccentric socialite famed for the mismatch between her operatic ambitions and her ability to sing. As a comedy there is only one joke – that Florence is a truly terrible singer but the film takes an overall more sympathetic look at the woman and the people around her.

The key theme is deception and whether love is a sufficient reason to make deception just and moral. At its heart is Florence’s extreme self-deception; she cannot sing and it is only because of her vast wealth that she can indulge in having her own pianist, recording a record or booking Carnegie Hall for her own concert. However, rather than examine this as privilege run amok, Stephen Frears’s script delves deeper into her life, painting a sympathetic portrayal of a woman who has lost more than she has gained.

Deception too is the key quality of Hugh Grant’s performance as her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, an aging British actor. We are shown early on in the film that Bayfield actually lives in another apartment with another woman – the daily life and rituals yet another deception but this deception is also not what it seems.

Despite very strong performances from Streep and Grant the film feels unbalanced. The comic elements are undermined by the films own choices to portray the real life mockery as cruel and unimaginative. Some characters are portrayed as cynically exploiting Foster Jenkins for her wealth and others as acting out of love but the choices seem arbitrary even though the most favorably drawn characters (Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg as her hapless pianist Cosme McMoon) also gain financially from her. Some aspects of Florence’s eccentricity are built up as apparent major plot points (e.g. her fear of pointed and sharp objects) and then skipped over.

Costuming and set design are exquisite. The World War 2 setting only adds to the unreality of the world in which the characters live. A very humane film that perhaps does not entirely work but which tells a largely true if odd story.

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