Directed by Stephen Frears | Written by Nicholas Martin | 110 min | on Netflix
Meryl Streep once again essays a huge, picture-dominating role with a musical flavour—though a major left turn from last year’s Ricki And The Flash. This time it’s the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy New York socialite who, in 1944, managed to be a singer despite her limited ability—eventually inspiring icons like David Bowie. The film is mostly a good time, but isn’t quite up to the size and sweep of the performer in its title role.
Jenkins has survived a chronic illness for years thanks to a love of music, as her doting husband/manager St Clair (Hugh Grant) puts it. He lives a double life, keeping an apartment and a mistress (Rebecca Ferguson), and for the first half of the movie named for Jenkins he’s the lead. It looks like the story is going to be about his divided loyalties—off on vacation with Ferguson while Jenkins kills time with her pianist, the delightfully named (and played, by The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg) Cosmé McMoon.
The focus swings back to Jenkins as she engineers her Carnegie Hall debut, having rented the venue with her seemingly endless reserves of cash, while St Clair does everything he can to protect her from a critical backlash. We’re invited to laugh at her efforts, but she’s never a joke.
In the end, it is about loyalty, and how maybe the things and people we love are more important than talent. In that regard it’s a lot like Ishtar, which dealt with similar themes in a comedic way—and, from me, that’s meant as a compliment. The finale is unfortunately mawkish, diminishing some of what’s gone before.
But the material does feel relevant in this age of instant stardom for questionable ability, along with the knee-jerk judgments from internet trolls without the courage someone like Jenkins exhibited, and full credit to Streep for dominating the screen, once again showing us someone we haven’t seen from her before. The big surprise here is Grant—channelling a Roger Moore-esque British gentleman. He has arguably the more complex role, and it’s great to see him in it.