When it comes to films with a lead female character aged 50 or over, it seems as though there is a shortlist of potential actresses that comprises just four names: Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Having worked with both Mirren (The Queen) and Dench (Mrs Henderson Presents, Philomena) in the recent past, British director Stephen Frears teams with Streep on this occasion for a story about a real-life New York socialite whose passion for music and performance is only surpassed by her overwhelming lack of talent. Streep plays the titular Florence, a likeable but apparently self-deluded woman whose infamy stems not from the sheer awfulness of her singing, but from the gusto and sincerity with which it is delivered.
It is somewhat ironic that Florence acquired such a sizeable audience in her time, with celebrities of the day such as Cole Porter and legendary stage actress Tallulah Bankhead amongst the 3000 who attended the one-off Carnegie Hall show in October 1944 that enshrined her in the annals of operatic folklore. Shrouded by her wealth and the determination of doting husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) to protect her from the excruciating realities of her voice, Florence remained delightfully deluded. St Clair would select audiences for her annual recitals at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and pay critics to be kind, but when Florence insists on playing at Carnegie, he is unable to shield her from the scrutiny from which she has thus far been immune. The concert is, of course, abominable, but Florence convinces herself that the guffawing laughter from the audience is a sign that everybody is enjoying her performance.
The relationship between Florence and St Clair is an interesting one, their marriage seemingly one of genuine mutual affection, albeit devoid of sex due to Florence being afflicted with syphilis as a result of a short-lived first marriage. However, despite his devotion to Florence, St Clair lives separately in an apartment that he shares with girlfriend Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). It would be easy to present Florence as a somewhat pathetic figure, but Frears and Streep show great restraint in their depiction of a woman who is perhaps not as naive as she seems on the surface. A generous benefactor to the New York arts community, Florence is eccentric and impulsive and whilst Streep’s previous attempts at comedy (Death Becomes Her, She-Devil) have been awful, she is really good here in balancing the more serious elements of the story with Florence’s flights of fancy.
As pianist Cosme McMoon, Simon Helberg plays a 1940’s version of his Big Bang Theory character, while Nina Arianda is a scene-stealing delight as a Brooklyn bimbo who becomes Florence’s most unlikely champion. Grant delivers a lively, slick turn as St Clair, a character every bit as compelling as Florence. An actor whose career has stalled, St Clair is equal parts charming and conniving, and it’s hard to know for sure if his doting patronage is borne from love or the privileges it bestows upon him. Either way, his dedication to protecting Florence from the scrutiny of those outside her sycophantic circle is a responsibility he takes seriously. It would have been so easy to make Florence an object of ridicule (as she was for many at the time) and aim for cheap laughs. Yes, we laugh at her, but Frears has taken a more nuanced approach to the material, presenting Florence as somebody whose outlook and attitude is one of positivity and passion. With Florence Foster Jenkins, Frears has constructed an entertaining examination of an eccentric individual who serves as a reminder that perhaps it is tenacity and temerity, more so than talent, that are the true tests of character.