Director Stephen Frears’ latest biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins, centers on the title character, a bon vivant of the 20th century New York City arts scene. She had fortune and notoriety and a great passion for opera music and the desire to be an opera singer, herself.
Just one problem – Florence couldn’t sing to save her life. She would have never known that about herself because she was surrounded by people who encouraged her to follow her dreams.
In another transformative role, Meryl Streep stars as the titular character. There’s a great joy at watching the greatest living actress take on the role of someone who was so bad at performing because, as you could imagine, Streep is even perfect at being bad.
Florence’s husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), may not always be the best husband but is her biggest supporter. He cares greatly for Florence and champions any dreams, no matter how ridiculous they can be. He helps Florence interview piano players to help her with her vocal lessons.
They agree upon Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg, in what is hopefully an intentionally awkward performance), who is excited about landing such a good gig playing piano. His first session with Florence is shocking because the sounds coming out of her sound like anything but opera music. He’s stunned when her vocal coach and husband praise her but hesitantly continues to play the piano.
The film follows Florence all the way to Carnegie Hall, where she plays for a sold out crowd. What makes Frears’ film work so well is it never passes judgment on Florence and her delusions of grandeur. She is not a crazy person but an unshakably passionate one. St Clair doesn’t indulge simply to spare her feelings – though that’s certainly part of it – but he doesn’t want her to lose her love of music.
Streep delivers a performance infused with enthusiasm and a striking balance of confidence and vulnerability. Deftly balancing heart and humor – much like her Julie and Julia performance – she delivers her best performance since her icy nun in 2008’s Doubt.
But we know Streep is great – she always is, even in movies that aren’t good. The real surprise here is Grant, who gives the performance of his career. While Florence Foster Jenkins has the heft of a Sunday matinee film, should it be remembered come awards season, Grant is deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nomination. (Streep will more than likely continue to break her own record and garner her 20th career nomination.)
Despite lagging a bit, Florence Foster Jenkins is an easy watch and one that comes packaged in a good message. You don’t always have to be great to do the thing you love.
7 out of 10