New York socialite and patron of the arts Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) has always had a love of music. When she hears Lily Pons (Aida Garifullina) sing, she becomes convinced that the time is right for her to start taking lessons again, with a view to staging her own concert. The trouble is, Florence Foster Jenkins cannot sing in tune and although she is surrounded by people who support her, none of them seem to want to tell her the truth.
Florence Foster Jenkins is the second film released this year to tell the story of the woman branded “The World’s Worst Opera Singer”, the first being the French film Marguerite, which came out in Irish cinemas in March. Meryl Streep takes the lead here as the titular character, and although she makes Foster Jenkins sweet, enthusiastic and likeable, there is the feeling that there is information missing in this tale; information that could have made the film feel more rounded and engaging.
As mentioned, Maeryl Streep is on her usual fantastic form as Florence Foster Jenkins, and it is on her shoulders that the entire film rests. Streep makes the character likeable and childlike with her enthusiasm, but the naiveté that the character is imbued with makes her frustrating from time to time, as she seems to lack any self-awareness. Hugh Grant is on charming form as Foster Jenkins’ husband St Clair Bayfield, but the character has also got a selfish streak as he leads a double life, one that he hides from his trusting wife. Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory fame plays Foster Jenkins’ gentle and sweet pianist, and although he tries to be the voice of reason throughout the film, continually asking why Foster Jenkins is never told the truth about her voice, he soon succumbs to his own selfish whims as he gets the chance to play prestigious music venues. The rest of the cast features Rebecca Ferguson, Christian McKay and our own John Kavanagh.
Nicholas Martin’s screenplay jumps into Foster Jenkins’ story in the middle of events, before going back to reveal truths and secrets about the character throughout the film. There is enough in the film for the audience to root for the tone deaf but enthusiastic title character, but the characters that orbit her end up feeling selfish and borderline cruel. Although it is a fact that Foster Jenkins did perform in public, the film never quite makes it clear as to why no-one in her inner circle seems to have made an effort to tell her she was more likely to be ridiculed than adored. Perhaps it was a fear of being cruel, or perhaps because Foster Jenkins was wealthy; whatever the case, the film doesn’t seem to be able to make the reason plain, and this is a major issue.
As director, Stephen Frears makes Florence Foster Jenkins light and sweet, with a dark undertone that makes itself known through the cracks in Foster Jenkins’ life. There are problems with the film and its determination not to look at the people who lie to Foster Jenkins by omission and their reasons, but the film is well paced and, although the singing in the film is deliberately terrible, there is blessedly little of it.
In all, Florence Foster Jenkins feels a little by the numbers, but can never make its mind up as to whether it is an underdog story or one about the power of lies. Whatever the case, Streep, Grant and Helberg are on fine form, it’s just a shame that the motivations of some characters is never clear, and the film never tries to be anything other than entertaining, but not that special. After all, Florence Foster Jenkins’ determination and single mindedness was indeed what made her special.