The opening moments of every film are important, but they’ve perhaps never been more important to a comedy than they are in Florence Foster Jenkins. The film begins with Hugh Grant’s St. Clair Bayfield on stage reciting a Hamlet soliloquy with great conviction, and then casually pointing out that he’s never played the title role himself. It’s self-deprecating and honest, and therefore humorous. Moments later the titular Florence (Meryl Streep), attached to a wire, descends from above the stage to inspire her antebellum grandfather at the piano, and as she does so, the crew backstage visibly strains to hold her up.
The tone is immediately clear: St. Clair and Florence are performers who take themselves seriously but aren’t particularly good at what they do. Because we like them, and their work is played for laughs, it’s OK to laugh at them without feeling like it’s mean-spirited, which is just right for this story.
Based on true events, the story is set in New York City, 1944. As the war rages on overseas, the performing arts become essential relief for those at home. At the heart of the arts scene is Florence, a wealthy socialite who owns and runs The Verdi Club — a Vaudeville-type entertainment establishment — with her husband, St. Clair. Florence wants to do more than merely act in sketches, so she hires a pianist (Simon Helberg) and vocal coach (David Haig) and trains to be an opera singer.
There’s only one problem: She’s terrible. Like, really, horribly awful. At the same time, she’s dying of syphilis and St. Clair wants her to fulfill her dream of singing professionally, so he enables her and makes sure everyone around them does the same. As a result, she becomes immensely popular for the wrong reason, and she’s the only one oblivious to the truth.
Florence may be the most famous atrocious singer in history, but director Stephen Frears (Philomena) is too kind to suggest she lives in infamy. Instead he champions Florence, admires her courage and allows us to root for her in spite of her deluded shortcomings. Credit for this goes to Streep as well, of course. She doesn’t go over the top in her performance, but her singing is nails-on-chalkboard grating enough to have you begging her to stop. Streep is nicely supported by Grant as a man who loves her but isn’t in love with her, as is evident by his fierce devotion to Florence while simultaneously keeping a separate apartment and girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson).
Below the surface of the story is an essential question: Were St. Clair and others right to enable Florence to live out her dream as an opera singer, or should they have stopped her before she became too popular to spare her the potential embarrassment? You can make a case either way and be right, but that also means you can always be wrong. It’s a credit to Frears and Grant that the decision St. Clair reaches feels like the right one.
You’d think that given how much she loved music Florence had to know deep down that she was a dreadful singer, but reports suggest that taking mercury for syphilis distorted her hearing. Regardless, if people always told her she was good, why wouldn’t she believe them? Florence Foster Jenkins is very much the story of a lie for the right reason that’s never morally ambiguous or overtly cruel, which is a filmmaking feat more difficult to accomplish than getting Florence to sing well. It’s worth seeing for that admirable quality alone, though I dare say you’ll enjoy all of it.