In 'Florence Foster Jenkins,' life is more important than art

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'Florence' stars the supremely gifted Meryl Streep as a 1940s New York socialite who loves to sing but sounds lackluster. The movie co-stars Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg.

Nick Wall/Paramount Pictures
'Florence Foster Jenkins' stars Meryl Streep (l.) and Hugh Grant (r.).

In “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the supremely gifted Meryl Streep is playing a supremely ungifted singer with artistic ambitions. It’s official: Streep can play anything, even someone without a trace of talent. 

Jenkins was a real-life 1940s New York socialite and heiress who gave small operatic recitals to invited guests handpicked for their discretion and willingness to applaud by her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). Because no one dared tell her how awful her voice sounded, Jenkins thrived in a bubble of delusion. The bubble popped when, despite Bayfield’s fierce protests, she gave a free public concert in 1944 for US Army servicemen in Carnegie Hall, risking public exposure and the wrath of critics. (Jenkins’s story was dramatized earlier in the Tony-nominated Broadway play “Souvenir,” the West End musical “Glorious!” and, transposed to 1920s Paris, the recent French film “Marguerite.”)

How are we to comprehend such a life? On its simplest level, Jenkins’s story is a species of farce. With a voice pitched somewhere between an ear-splitting screech and the wail of a throttled goose, she is instantly risible. But not to herself, and there’s the rub. Jenkins, once a promising pianist, truly loves the music of Mozart and Verdi and Brahms. The classics, as she tells her fey, wide-eyed young piano accompanist, Cosme McMoon (the marvelous Simon Helberg, a regular on “The Big Bang Theory”), are what she lives for. And she means it literally. Diagnosed with syphilis, which she contracted from her first husband while still a young woman, Jenkins subsists on a precarious regimen of medicines and careful tending and good will. It is only when she is singing before an audience, or listening to a great singer like Lily Pons, that she is truly happy.

Her talent for singing may be nil, but her passion for great music is boundless. At the screening I attended, the audience convulsed in fits of laughter the first time Jenkins warbled – a moment the director Stephen Frears wisely withholds until about a half hour into the movie. But then a funny thing happened: Each time Jenkins subsequently sang, the laughter diminished a bit more, until, by the end, we were listening to her without mirth. Her ardor, if not her accomplishment, won us over.

This is another way of saying that, despite the rather misleading attempt on the part of its distributor to position this film as a high-brow laugh-riot, “Florence Foster Jenkins” is highly nuanced. It manages to be both flat-out hilarious and deeply melancholy, sometimes all at once. This is the most difficult combination to bring off, and Frears, aided by a marvelous screenplay by Nicholas Martin, somehow makes it look easy.

Perhaps this is because the filmmakers have an abiding love for the grand theatrical gesture, whether it issues from the talented or the talentless. The first scene in the movie features not Jenkins but her husband, as he warms up the invited audience with a soliloquy from “Hamlet.” Bayfield, we learn, was once an actor, and, though acutely self-aware of his limitations, declaims the Bard’s language in full thrall. Late in the film, Bayfield says that he gave up trying to be a great actor years ago and that this admission freed him of ambition, of “the mockers and scoffers.” It is those same scoffers from whom he vows to protect his wife. He understands the cruelties they can inflict and has no compunction about paying off critics or resorting to petty blackmail in order to perpetuate the deception.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is, among many other things, a stirring and improbable love story. Bayfield is endlessly solicitous of his wife even though, at night, he sleeps apart from her, in the apartment of a mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) that Florence, in another act of willed delusion, does not really acknowledge. He may seem like a bounder and an opportunist, but the marital relationship is much more complex than that. He genuinely adores Jenkins; that’s obvious in the hushed way he reads her to sleep at night with Shakespearean sonnets or rages when her feelings are trampled by the unfeeling.

Hugh Grant has come back in from the cold with this film. After too many lightweight turns tricked up with adorable tics and grimaces, he gives a tremendously knowing and resonant performance. We can see how Bayfield’s stiff upper lip rectitude serves as a poultice for his own disappointments in life; his commitment to his wife, to her muse, is more than just a charade. To his astonishment, no doubt, it has become his own reason for being. He is the custodian of her courage. 

Streep has over the years become, in addition to everything else, a wonderful comic actress. Comedy was the one weapon I thought missing in her formidable arsenal until she had that scene in “Adaptation” where she imitates a phone's dial tone while getting high inhaling plant powder. She can be fearlessly loosey-goosey. But what is fearless about her performance in “Florence Foster Jenkins” is how she never once falls for the easy, wink-wink effect. When Jenkins is singing, she isn’t some camp diva; she’s the highest embodiment of our most outrageous aspirations. (Streep, who normally has a fine voice, does her own singing, and she does an amazing job of never quite hitting the right note.)

There is great affection in what she does here, and also great sadness. In the film’s most quietly beautiful scene, she visits the startled McMoon in his disheveled apartment and proceeds to gently admonish him as she washes his dirty dishes. We recognize, without any underscoring, that she is lonely and that he has become her close friend. They quietly sit down at his piano and together play Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor. Theirs is a love story, too.

When Jenkins dismisses the warnings that the Carnegie Hall appearance could seriously imperil her health, she adds, “Then I shall die happy. Death has been my constant companion.” The way Streep plays it, there is no false nobility in the pronouncement. It is simply what this woman believes. Throughout the film, Frears avoids sentimentality as unerringly as Jenkins misses the right note. It would have easy for him to dramatize the Carnegie Hall concert as a wall-to-wall love fest, but many in the raucous audience have little tolerance for sentiment. The film’s one overwhelmingly moonstruck moment comes near the end, when Jenkins, near death, imagines herself onstage singing in perfect pitch. It’s a consummation of everything that has come before – a fantasia of art as an idealized version of life.

It’s possible, I suppose, especially if one is a professional critic, to object to the film’s implication that a no-talent is vindicated by her passion for art. In the movie’s one false note, Frears presents us with a critic, the columnist Earl Wilson (Christian McKay), who is portrayed as a villainous cur for daring to print the truth about Jenkins’s singing. And yet surely there were critics who felt that, by slamming Jenkins’s mangling of Mozart, they were serving their own passion for what music should be.

My objection functions on a different plane from what is best in the movie, which finally is about the person, not the artist. If we fail to respond to Jenkins’s desire for transcendence, if we laugh it away, or savage it, it is only ourselves, our frailties, that we are backing away from.“Florence Foster Jenkins” isn’t really about how passion trumps art. It’s about how life is more important than art. Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material.)

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