Florence Foster Jenkins was a real woman, a NYC socialite, whose passion for music inspired her to become an opera singer, while blissfully unaware of how terrible her voice was.
As portrayed in the film, Florence (Meryl Streep) was quite a unique individual. She was a very passionate woman and wanted to make the world a better place. Music was her conduit for expression and with the help of her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), they ran a successful dinner club for other socialites during the 1930s and 40s. An injury ended her days as a pianist, and now in her later years, she longed to express herself in a more direct way than just hosting these musical dinner shows. Wealthy to the point where currency held a diminished value, Florence was able to fund her eccentricities and the people around her were happy to help.
St. Clair was a dutiful and devoted husband, many years her junior. He did everything in his power to keep her happy, but this sometimes involved a careful balancing act between letting her have what she wanted, and preventing her from wandering outside her protective social bubble. When Florence would occasional host small dinner performances, he would always insure only “music lovers only” could purchase tickets. But when she suddenly decides to sing at Carnegie Hall and hires a young personal pianist, Cosme McMoon, (Simon Helberg), her enthusiasm becomes more than he can contain.
On paper, it seems like Florence could be a very unlikeable individual. Oblivious, out-of-touch with reality, self-absorbed and egotistical. But everyone that got to know her, fell in love with her. Her almost childlike innocence and eagerness was inspiring to others, and she honestly wanted to bring joy into the lives of others. As the film progresses, the emotional depth of her character, and her relationship with St. Clair deepens more than expected. There’s a lot of complexity to their story and his motivations to continue her blissful ignorance.
Streep is amazing as she always is but this is some of Grant’s most delightful work. Simon Helberg is the real surprise here, not only giving a highly entertaining portrayal (with hilarious facial expressions) but as confirmed in our interview with him, he’s actually a skilled musician and plays the piano for all their scenes together. Visually the film has a very “classic” feel going for it. Sweeping crane shots, authentic looking locales, and just a touch of grain make it look like a newly restored musical from the 50s. It feels as if any moment Gene Kelly or Debbie Reynolds might stop in for a cameo.
Florence Foster Jenkins impacted an astounding number of lives, although perhaps not always as she intended. It wasn’t her music that touched people directly, it was her heart. As one character says, “her passion exceeded her ability, but that shouldn’t stop her from celebrating it.” There’s certainly something to be said for the woman whose only recording resides on David Bowie’s list of favorite vinyl albums.