Florence Foster Jenkins was an American heiress whose prodigious career as a concert pianist was cut off cruelly short when she contracted syphilis from her husband and it affected her nervous system. She became a generous patron to the arts, taking starring acting roles in tableaux vivant she had paid to stage for private societies. Events took a turn, however, when she aspired to become an opera singer, hiring pianist Cosme McMoon as her accompanist. This dream was abetted by her common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield, who loved her, knew she couldn't sing, and kept the audience limited to friends or critics he could pay off. Nonetheless, when Jenkins aspired to play Carnegie Hill, even Bayfield couldn't prevent the uninstructed audience booing her off-pitch singing, or particularly snide reviews in the press.
This latest retelling of the story is handsomely directed and acted and provides two hours of great fun, stunning costumes but also, unexpectedly, real pathos. Hugh Grant excels as the charismatic, fun-filled husband: we understand that he truly loves this eccentric woman even while being in a long-term relationship with another woman. Meryl Streep is similarly charismatic as Jenkins, and it's quite a feat that two characters who might have been off-putting - the enabling scrounger and the narcissistic wannabe singer - are actually desperately likeable. Moreover, the skill involved in singing badly is quite astounding and the facial expressions she gives to every phrase are masterclass in comic acting and a delight to watch. Rounding out the principle trio, we have THE BIG BANG THEORY's Simon Helberg, who plays pianist Cosme McMoon, the audience surrogate who expresses our surprise that no-one has thought to tell Jenkins that her singing sucks.
Nicholas Martin's script takes the view that Jenkins didn't know how bad her singing was: that when she sang she heard a tuneful voice, and that perhaps the syphilis had affected her hearing. This is a not uncontroversial view. But then this film is in the business of giving us a tragic love story which hues broadly to the truth but omits some key facts to burnish the reputations of its lead characters, most obviously that Bayfield married his lover once Jenkins died. Ultimately, this airbrushing of history is irrelevant. We get to the poignant truth of Jenkins and Bayfield's love - her generous patronage of the arts - and the hilarity and exuberance of their life together. This could we be one of the finest of director Stephen Frears' (THE PROGRAM) recent films.
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS has a running time of 111 minutes and is rated PG-13. The movie is on release in the UK, Ireland and Australia. It opens later in May in Israel and Taiwan; in June in Croatia, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece; in July in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and France; in August in Canada, Lithuania, the USA, Poland, Philippines, Denmark and Sweden; in September in Portugal, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, Hungary, Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Croatia and Macedonia; in November in Norway, Germany and Austria and in December in Japan.