On this week’s edition of Meryl does as she likes: Florence Foster Jenkins, the biopic of an artistic patron and would-be singer whose enthusiasm transcended her lack of natural talent on her quest to become a noted Opera singer.
It’s 1944, and Madam Florence, as she’s known is on a quest to keep music alive in New York, even during wartime when so much else grinds to a halt. We join her at a club of music lovers where he husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) recites Shakespearean soliloquies while Florence and her compatriots change outfits to bring the likes of “The Ride of the Valkyries” to dramatic life. The city’s musical greats seek her out for funding. But it is not until she witnesses the fruits of her enthusiastic funding that she feels the call of adventure to return to vocal lessons.
This she does, of course, with the best coach in the city. But it’s accompaniment with a pianist that presents the change in her world. She holds auditions and meets the sweet, soft-spoken Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), who is only too happy to take the job, until hearing Florence sing on his first day. What follows is a movie about dreamers, the people they attract, and the people who detract from them.
By rights, Florence Foster Jenkins should be an easily forgettable little trifle. But it is so well-realized from script to performance to mise-en-scène that this scrappy little movie sticks with you, much the way a performance from Madam Florence herself would. The spectrum of emotions is much more broad than can be anticipated, and each of the characters more complex. The primary feelings here are laughter and joy — the film easily delivers on both, as promised, but there’s also a thread of nostalgia, melancholy and the anguish of ambition that runs throughout. There are moral conundrums around loyalty and kindness and whether intention or action ultimately matters more.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that a project that combines THE Meryl Streep and Stephen Frears would have all the trappings of a contender, but there it is. Ultimately, Florence Foster Jenkins may prove too light and sweet to stay in the race ’til the bitter end, but you can never count Meryl out. At very least we’ll see her on Golden Globes night, because when it comes to Meryl, the HFPA is all of us and would gladly invite her to the party for sneezing. Happily, she gets far more to do in this even meatier than expected role.