A beloved society woman, Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) and patron of the arts is convinced of her ability to sing opera like the greats, an opinion that’s given credence by the abiding support of her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), an actor who long ago abandoned his staunchest dreams of becoming an actor to be Florence’s tireless advocate and soul mate. Bayfield has never consummated his relationship with his wife – because of a long-endured medical condition of hers – and lives elsewhere in a small flat with his frustrated girlfriend Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), an arrangement that naturally causes occasional complications.
All these characters, and many more, partake in an absurd but magnificently perpetuated sense of grand delusion. The admirable sustainability of such a delusion is, essentially, what the film boils down to, though other themes are scattered throughout – the championing of the spirit of participation, of fearlessly attempting to tackle your dreams and believe in your abilities, opinions to the contrary be damned. If this delusional grandiosity can be preserved for as long as it is thanks to a combination of wealth and industriousness on behalf of Bayfield, mostly, then so be it.
Director Stephen Frears’ latest is a meticulously crafted, thoroughly entertaining drama. It’s also side-splittingly funny at times, thanks to Nicolas Martin’s classy screenplay and Streep’s immense vocal talents. With deftness, and an exquisite awareness of the innate comedic potential at hand, she’s able to exaggerate Florence’s dodgy range in both her warm-ups with esteemed vocal coach Carlo Edwards (David Haig) – another who willingly perpetuates this notion of Florence actually possessing talent by keeping his weighty paycheques foremost in his mind – and on stage.
It’s during these moments, before a crowd, that the laughter at Florence’s ineptness gets drowned out by mocking, rapturous applause that transforms into admiration for the sheer bravura of her persistence and obliviousness. The press run with the positive angle, selling the myth of Florence’s talent; the esteem in which she’s held by the music community and its benefactors allows a buffer zone to form around her, protecting her from the truth. But for how long exactly?
Frears has long proven himself to be one of British cinema’s most prolific and versatile directors. Though he’s made the occasional misstep, his ever-expanding back-catalogue is marked by its remarkable consistency, including more recently, The Queen (2006), Philomena (2013).There have been occasional flirtations with greatness too, as in his early masterwork The Hit (1984) and beloved Nick Hornby adaptation, High Fidelity (2000). In general, he’s had a knack for acquiring projects that aspire to a very credible melding of commercial success and semi-arthouse prestige.
Is there really any point dragging out yet another string of plaudits for Streep? The woman is, simply put, a marvel, her immersion into characters of all types, from every walk of life, constantly surprising. She makes this lovable but occasionally absurd woman impossible to dislike and very easy to fall into – for the vastness of her delusion, for her soulfulness, for the hints of tragedy that have coloured her success and for her almost divine fortitude in outlasting the medical fraternity’s dire assessment of her infirmities.
Grant gives one of his finest performances as the extraordinarily devout Bayfield whose politeness, solemnity and diligence in being able to foresee and smooth over any cracks in Florence’s public façade allows for piercing moments of tenderness and poignancy to temper the drama’s lightness. Special mention must also be made of the contribution of Simon Helberg as Florence’s pianist of choice, Cosme McMoon, whose wild, hilarious assortment of facial distortions reflecting his rapture at getting the job and then astonishment and horror at first hearing Florence sing are worth the price of admission alone. For his part Frears’ handling of the narrative is exceptionally proficient, a totally professional job that will ensure that Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) ranks amongst his finest of recent years.