The story of Florence Foster Jenkins is a mix of the bizarre and the inspirational. A New York socialite who was robbed of her status as a piano prodigy due to injuries to her hand, she went on to become a great supporter of the arts. However, she wasn’t content with just supporting them and decided to make steps into opera singing. Sadly, the only person unaware that she was awful, was herself, and she was kept ignorant of that right up until the moment she sang at Carnegie Hall.
In Stephen Frears’ adaptation of that story, the role of Jenkins is taken by Meryl Streep and it shouldn’t be a surprise to say she is rather good. It’s become the norm to expect greatness from Streep but it always slightly surprising at just how adept a comic performer she is. Her Jenkins is key to this film and if she dissolves into a joke of a character everything around her falls apart with it. Thankfully, Streep is a safe hand. Jenkins is ridiculous, but she is also lovable. You can see why the people around her want to protect her from the truth and as these lies unravel you find yourself terrified that this passionate woman is going to have her dreams shattered.
The people around her are Hugh Grant as her common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield and Simon Helberg in the shoes of the brilliantly named piano player Cosme McMoon. Grant puts on his best performance in years, and you could even make an argument for it being one of his best full stop. Bayfield dotes on Jenkins, despite the fact that he has another woman on the side (played by the underused Rebecca Ferguson). Grant does a fantastic job of getting across that emotion. Of showing his devotion to his ‘bunny’, even if that doesn’t extend to the physical. Elsewhere, Helberg steps out of the shadow of The Big Bang Theory for the first time. He could almost be playing in a silent film with his facial expressions telling nearly the whole story. Of course, that would be a shame as it would rob you of his awkward high-pitched giggle.
Where Florence Foster Jenkins lives and dies is whether you feel like it is a cruel movie or one that takes inspiration from its central character. Thankfully, it more often falls into the later. While Streep’s singing is hilarious – and deserves credit for being good enough in its awfulness for it to still be funny – and will have you giggling along, you never feel like you are doing so from mockery. Jenkins is a woman who through pure determination does something that very few people can ever lay claim to. As she says, ‘people may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.’