If a parrot had enough stamina to make it all the way through Madame Butterfly, it might sound better than Florence Foster Jenkins. If a bottle fell from a great height and its mouth caught the wind in just such a way, it might be more on pitch than Florence Foster Jenkins. It may be a common sight in these post-American Idol audition days, but in 1944 it wasn’t often that a breathless, off-pitch singer could unintentionally humiliate herself into the hearts of thousands. That is, not until the sequin-covered, tiaraed, veiled, Madam Florence Foster Jenkins.
Thanks to the YouTube comment section, we all know where to go when we’re looking for an honest opinion. In 1944, however, negative criticism wasn’t sent directly to your Twitter inbox, making it much easier to live in one’s imaginary palace of false perception. Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) may be older than most opera singers, but if you ask, her career is just getting started. Her husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), is more than content to let Florence take lessons and pursue her dream, as is her praise-showering vocal coach (who prefers that she not mention her affiliation with him in public). Her pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), however, is completely baffled that they let this woman out of the house. Off pitch though her singing may be, the whole situation is relatively under control, until Florence decides she is ready to perform on stage. To maintain her fantasy, Bayfiled shelters Florence as much as he can, refusing to sell tickets to those with a sense of humour, bribing every journalist in town, and ushering her away from all negative comments. This works for a time – until Florence becomes an overnight, New York sensation.
She really is horrible. The best part is that it’s the kind of horrible that puts you in stitches. Florence Foster Jenkins is made up of people who shower Florence in praises for her showmanship, charisma, and fancy hats (most of these characters are hard of hearing), and people who can’t help but laugh their socks off at her flat, huffing high notes. My favourite giggle fit of them all belongs to Agnes Stark (Nina Arianda) who laughs so hard she has to crawl out of the theatre. While I completely understand Agnes’ predicament, we are encouraged to cheer for Team Florence from the very start. She may not be the next Reneé Fleming but she performs with such conviction and blind belief in her talent that it’s an inspiring display of “do what you want and the rest will follow.” Even Agnes sees the beauty in Florence’s pluck, recognizing that it takes great bravery to stand on stage in front of that many people without an ounce of talent to back her.
All around, Florence Foster Jenkins is stocked with great performances. Not of the vocal kind. Those are, for the most part, quite terrible. But on the acting front, Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep blew me away. They are so wrapped in the fabric of their characters that it’s a challenge to see where the character ends and they begin. Massive applause, however, goes to Simon Helberg. You get the sense that the pianist, Mr. McMoon, used to schedule his day around pre-lunch bullying and post-lunch cowering. His character, right down to the walk, screams insecurity. Now put this character next to the feather-wearing, B-sharp screaming Florence and the contrast is even more pronounced. Simon Helberg can say more with a blank stare than I could in an essay, so I will leave the dumbfoundedness to him…
Florence Foster Jenkins isn’t your classic cinematic story. I wasn’t sitting on the edge of my seat nor was I heartily invested in the characters’ success. It was a bit slow at times, and threw in a few unnecessary plot details for the sole reason of making an already eccentric character appear more eccentric. However, Florence Foster Jenkins is unique. I laughed at the characters’ awkward situations and filter-free outbursts. It is a pleasant watch in tune with a delightful giggle. I would give it a 7/10.