Meryl Streep has a ball giving her all to the title role of Florence Foster Jenkins, the Ed Wood of delusional opera singers. Like Wood, whose talent for filmmaking fell hilariously short of his passion for the game (see Plan 9 From Outer Space), Jenkins lived in a pumpkin shell where she’s kept very well by her protective common-law husband and manager St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). In the social circles of 1940’s Manhattan, Bayfield persuaded sympathetic socialites and bribable critics to indulge his wealthy wife’s fantasies by lining up vocal coaches, accompanists, and private recitals at The Verdi Club (which she owned). Though Bayfield keeps a mistress, Kathleen Weatherly (Rebecca Ferguson), it is with the tacit permission of his wife; the diva’s first husband left Madame Florence with syphilis. That explains her non-existent sex life — and may partly account for her medical inability to discern a wrong note. This wreaks havoc on her new piano accompanist Cosme McMoon (a splendid Simon Helberg), who is at first aghast at hearing the hellish sounds emanating from the throat of this strangulated soprano.
So, you’re probably asking, what kind of a movie is this? A damn fine and funny one, thanks to the way the estimable director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, The Queen) conducts the piece, keeping a delicate balance between the comic and the tragic in the script by Nicholas Martin and providing an atmosphere in which three dazzling and very different actors can work in blissful harmony.
Streep could be looking at her 20th Oscar nomination for bringing humor and feeling to a woman too easily dismissed as a ridiculous cartoon. An admirable singer herself, the actor skillfully scales her notes close enough to regulation to make the inevitable Jenkins crash into screech the antithesis of ear candy. It’s a pitch-perfect portrayal of a woman for whom pitch is an alien concept. And yet Streep moves you for her celebration of the amateur’s love of performance. She makes you root for Jenkins against the odds, even when reality — in the form of her 1944 debut to jeering at Carnegie Hall — shuts the door hard on her fantasy.
And Helberg, the geeky Howie Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, is a revelation as McMoon. As expected, he delivers big laughs as his pianist reacts in horror to Madame Florence’s profound lack of musical talent. Being a classically trained pianist, Helberg lets us share McMoon’s embarrassment at playing in public for this deluded diva. The surprise here is how he subtly shades his portrayal as McMoon grows to emphasize with Jenkins until his affection for her is palpable, touching and one we can share. He’s irresistible.
And then there’s Grant, who has charmed us through dozens of romcoms. This time he goes deeper, darker and riskier. He makes Bayfield a complex character with his own broken spirit as a failed Shakespearean actor who protects his wife from the mocking crowd but who has no one shielding him from the arguably greater sting of public indifference. Grant shows the strain on Bayfield and the undercurrents of resentment. But it’s in the quitter moments, when Bayfield removes his wife’s wig, tucks her into bed and holds her with an intimacy beyond sex, that Grant reveals a man still capable of tenderness while fighting his own battle against diminished options. It’s a new direction for Grant and his triumphant performance suggests exciting things ahead.
And so you forgive the film its faults, its clunky exposition, its cheesy overreaching, just like like you forgive Jenkins her vocal attacks on Mozart, Verdi, Brahms and other composers she kills with misguided love. Caruso and Cole Porter were avowed fans. And David Bowie counted Jenkins’ recording, “The Glory of the Human Voice,” as one of his most prized vinyl possessions. There’s a reason the Jenkins story has been told on stage as drama (Souvenir), musical (Glorious!) and fictionalized in the 2015 French film Marguerite. My guess is that the Frears version will be the one that sticks. It has the most heart. And it’s a hoot.