Arts movie review

As genuine as it is funny, Florence Foster Jenkins hits the right notes

Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant give reliably brilliant, hilarious performances

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Meryl Streep revels in the spotlight as amateur opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins
Nick Wall


Florence Foster Jenkins

Directed by Stephen Frears

Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant

Rated PG-13

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Bad singers are some of the most annoying people in the world. When they belch out a string of screechy notes, each one progressively more off-key than the last, I want to curl up into a ball and die.

But when there’s a genuine passion behind a terrible voice, it becomes all the sweeter. Although real-life socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy patron of the arts in WWII-era New York, is blissfully oblivious to her lack of vocal ability, she wins our hearts as the star character of director Stephen Frear’s latest film.

We are introduced to Jenkins, played by a marvelous 67-year-old Meryl Streep, as she decides to start taking vocal lessons again after hearing a young, beautiful opera singer at Carnegie Hall.

What garners the most sympathy for Jenkins is not her endearing obliviousness to her tone-deafness, or her pitiable health problems — it’s her devotion to the artistic vitality of New York.

A generous woman, she gladly donates to arts performances in the city to ensure that the show always goes on. She believes that, in a time when young men are overseas fighting for freedom in WWII, music has never been more important to the spirit of New York. She attempts to boost the young soldiers’ morale and infuse the city with spirit through music, winning the respect and sympathy of the film’s audience.

The most multifaceted and well-developed character, though, might go to St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), Jenkin’s husband.

We don’t know what to think of Bayfield at first — it’s revealed that he lives with a younger girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), in an apartment paid for by his wife. What are his motivations? Does he truly love Jenkins? Is he using her for her money?

But, time and again, we see his devotion to Jenkins, as he stands up for her and protects her on every occasion. This places strain on Kathleen — a charming and warm character, she can share Bayfield, but desires not to lose her dignity because of his double life.

The character of Cosme McMoon is a delightful enigma. He’s awkward and endearing from the moment he’s introduced — when he auditions for and receives the position as Jenkins’ pianist. He aspires to be a great pianist, yet he doesn’t seem to be made of star material — he’s shy and self-conscious. But, once he gets over his qualms of being embarrassed in public by Jenkins’ raucous voice, he proves himself to be supportive of his friend and patron.

The greatest thing about the film is that Jenkins is, in a sense, what we wish we could all be. Her passion for the people in her life, for music, and for everything she does quite literally keeps her spirit alive. She, while lacking so much, lives life to the fullest. and her devotion to realizing her dreams resonates with something suppressed in all of us. As Jenkins noted herself, they may say she can’t sing, but no one can say she didn’t sing.