It’s an exceptionally good year for self-titled biopics featuring women with dreams of musical stardom. Granted, there’s a bit of overlap – Miss Sharon Jones! and Florence Foster Jenkins both debut in DC this week, and Marguerite told Florence Foster Jenkins’s story five months ago – but you could wander into any one of them and enjoy a satisfying film experience. It says something that there’s room for all three, but for broad appeal, your safest best is almost certainly Florence Foster Jenkins, the new comedy directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) and starring Meryl Streep in the titular role.
The film is based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, an heiress who wants desperately to be an opera star. Bribes from her husband and the absence of Twitter and YouTube in the 1940s keep Jenkins from finding out that her terrible singing voice made this a difficult goal to accomplish. That kind of indulgence– along with the kind of frivolity that allows for bathtubs filled with potato salad – is central to the film; despite being set in 1944, the movie contains no memorable mention of World War II.
There’s a geniality that balances the extravagance, though, and viewers are more likely to sympathize with the various characters than we are to judge them harshly. That’s due in large part to a talented and well-cast trio of actors. The first is, of course, Meryl Streep, who is unsurprisingly excellent. Her Florence is both vulnerable and powerful, both sympathetic and insufferable, and although some of the well-managed balance of the fully-formed character is the result of Nicholas Martin’s screenplay, most of it is Streep’s performance.
For all of Streep’s predictability, Simon Helberg’s work as Florence’s pianist, Cosme McMoon, is an unexpected pleasure. Some viewers might recognize Helberg from his role on the long-running The Big Bang Theory, but he fits into this role so well that casual fans of the show might not place him until long after the credits roll (I didn’t.) Cosme is the closest thing the audience has to a proxy, as he gets dropped into the film at the same time as the audience, and Helberg effectively mirrors our own disbelief and hesitations. Early in the film, there is a short scene in an elevator where Cosme is trying to control his reaction to meeting Florence, and it’s among the most subtly delightful moments I’ve seen in a movie all year.
The real stand out in the film, though, is Hugh Grant as Florence’s devoted husband, St Clair. To be clear, his devotion doesn’t keep him from living with his mistress in an apartment for which Florence pays, but he is fiercely protective of Florence’s feelings and health in a way demonstrates a tremendous amount of some version of love. The morally ambiguous line between rogue and gentle caretaker is one that Grant as an actor was born to walk, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part. It’s nice to be reminded that he’s actually a skilled actor, as opposed to a guy who got lucky in a few films in the 90s.
It’s worth noting that in Florence Foster Jenkins, Grant looks older than I’m used to seeing him. He looks at least every year of his 55 years, even a bit older at times. It could be a make-up decision made to match him a bit more closely with 67-year-old Streep, or he could just be an aging human. It’s fair to ask, though, whether a Hugh Grant who doesn’t look like the Hugh Grant of Notting Hill is even still the same actor. Just kidding. What an asinine question that would have been.
Florence Foster Jenkins takes a decidedly lighter tone than its cousin Marguerite, the French film that came out earlier this year based on the same subject and story. That was probably the right choice, since it’s hard to imagine the chemistry among Streep, Grant, and Helberg translating as well to the angst and gravity of Marguerite. But the downside of playing the story primarily for laughs is that in scenes when the story is poignant or sympathetic, the audience reaction can feel mismatched with the moment. Where Marguerite’s moral ambiguity and shifting tone seemed intentional, in Florence Foster Jenkins, the tonal imbalance and lack of depth can feel a bit misguided or even sloppy at times.
Still, overall, Florence Foster Jenkins represents a “happy world,” as St Clair describes it more than once. He also insists there is “no shortage of love” among the primary characters despite the delusion, privilege, and imperfection in their lives and stories. And at the end of the day, happiness, love, and a gifted piano player is really all any of us can ask from life.