It is 1940s New York and we see Florence entertaining her moneyed guests who cheer her on as she is very rich and they don’t wish to lose her patronage. Almost like The Emperor’s New Clothes in reverse, nobody wants to be the one to tell Florence she can’t sing. From time to time we hear her screech the notes of a song and understand why her staff cover their ears. But as she is flattered by all, Florence really believes in herself. “Music is my life,” she tells everyone.
St Clair, while adoring his wife, is also carrying on an affair with Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). Florence knows about this and just puts up with it as her husband is always on her side and – in the daytime – by her side. They don’t sleep together as St Clair disappears to his mistress each night.
The crunch comes when Florence decides to put on a public performance in Carnegie Hall. Although her teacher and husband try to talk her out of it, she goes ahead and performs to many strangers and one critic, the New York Post reviewer (Christian McKay) who tells the truth.
Stephen Frears directs the movie as a comedy, but there is a lot of sadness in this tale of a woman who works hard but can’t hear herself sing and just carries on without knowing the truth. Streep is absolutely wonderful in the part of Florence and manages to suppress her own voice to take on that of the would-be opera singer. It’s not all joy for Florence as she hints at her unhappiness at not having children because of her illness. Florence still suffers from the result of syphilis contracted from her first husband. Florence and St Clair don’t have a sexual relationship because she feels his health is of paramount importance.
There is great chemistry between her and Grant. Hugh Grant is just right in the part of the supportive husband, who is a failed actor. He will go to extreme lengths to keep Florence from finding out what folk really think of her singing. At one point he attempts to buy all copies of the newspaper that has the derogatory review in it. Although Grant gives a very funny demonstration of dancing, the sequence goes on for rather too long.
The supporting cast work hard to give substance to their characters as they have far fewer lines than the main stars and it is difficult for them to convey all their thoughts and emotions. Rebecca Ferguson is most sympathetic in her role as mistress to St Clair. She seems to understand that Florence needs him constantly by her side and she doesn’t demand more than he can give, which is basically the nights.
Simon Helberg as the pianist, who very reluctantly agrees to be Florence’s accompanist, shows a real flair for comedy as he is torn between his need for money and his wish to remain a true artist rather than accompanying a woman who can’t sing in tune.
The movie is most amusing in parts but the niggles remain: are we laughing with or at Florence?
Florence Foster Jenkins is a charming, touching film. Some people believe the film to be inferior to the recent Marguerite, which was also based on this story. This film, however, is a fairly true depiction of the actual events. It is also in English which for a British audience makes it much more accessible. Meryl Streep seems to act with her soul and Hugh Grant is an excellently sympathetic and loving partner. You are sure to enjoy this film. Go see!
Review by Carlie Newman