Maestro, do you think that I’m ready for a concert?Florence Foster Jenkins is a remarkable true story of an infamous socialite who inspired all that knew her. Academy Award winning actress Meryl Streep plays Florence, an eccentric heiress who patronized the New York art scene in 1944. As a young girl, she was a talented pianist until an injury to her left hand caused significant nerve damage which ended all hope of becoming a concert pianist. At the age of 16, Florence’s father threatened to cut her off from his wealth if she didn’t give up music.
Her dream may have been delayed, but not quelled as she continued to pursue her love of music through singing, elaborate stage performances, and the foundation of the Verdi Club whose mission was to foster the love of opera.
She lives in a luxury high rise apartment in the Hotel Seymour, attended by her devoted husband and manager St. Clair Bayfield, masterfully played by Hugh Grant (Love Actually, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones Diary). His character is a complicated English aristocrat and former actor who will do anything to protect his beloved Florence. However, when Florence falls asleep, St. Clair leads a second life in an apartment he keeps with his mistress Kathleen Weatherly.
The film opens in the Verdi Club. St. Clair entertains the audiences with monologues in between scenes. Florence has key non-singing roles in the productions. Later, after watching an opera soprano, she mentions to St. Clair that she would like the opportunity to study with a vocal coach again.
St. Clair schedules auditions with a bunch of young pianists. He and Florence are looking for an accompanist for her practices. One of the candidates, Cosme McMoon played by Simon Helberg of the Big Bang Theory impresses Florence by playing a song she loved as a young girl. They seem to hit it off right away and before long St. Clair dismisses the rest of the field waiting in the hallway. He hires Cosme who is astounded to learn that he will receive $150 a week, not $150 per month like he expected.
Cosme shows up the next day and is quite flabbergasted to meet the renowned vocal coach Carlo Edwards played by David Haig. He begins playing and Florence begins to sing what is supposed to be an operatic piece. It is horribly off key and hard to listen to. Cosme does his best not to laugh. It did not take long before the audience in the screening laughed out loud. Edwards continues to coach Florence as if she were a serious student while an encouraging St. Clair watches. Florence is obsessed with becoming a great singer. The voice she hears in her head is quite different than the hilariously awful sound others hear. However, since she is such a patron of the arts, Edwards indulges her dream.
“People may say I can’t sing,” she said, “but no one can ever say I didn’t sing”
The lessons continue and before long, Florence wants to sing in public. St. Clair Bayfield coordinates her performances and shields her from criticism by carefully selecting who attends. A critic from the New York Times request a ticket and reluctantly St. Clair offers him one with a large bill folded in the envelope. The reporter turns it down and walks away.
Florence and Cosme record a single at the Melotone Recording Studio and give it as Christmas gifts to her patrons. One of the records ends up in the hands of a radio station. St. Clair is having a drink with Kathleen when he hears it playing while a bunch of men ridicule Florence.
Meanwhile, our socialite books Carnegie Hall for a public concert and gives away 1,000 tickets to the military. St. Clair now faces his biggest challenge when the general public and critics not loyal to Florence attend the show. Since Florence suffers from a chronic disease, St. Clair reluctantly concedes because music is her dream and he’s determined to give it to her. Florence demonstrates throughout her life that it’s not how good you are but how big you dream.
As St. Clair Bayfield, Hugh Grant gives one of the best performances of his career. Streep is amazing as usual. It takes supreme talent to nail Florence’s off-key performances. Simon Helberg showed audiences his range as an actor, but also brought his affable quirkiness to the role of Cosme. I especially loved his gestures, especially his facial expressions.
Directed by Stephen Frears (Philomena and The Queen), this film should be extremely popular with the “Greatest Generation” and “Baby Boomers”. The casting of Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep alone will draw throngs of movie-goers craving a film worthy of an Oscar conversation. ~A.S. MacLeod & Movie Buffette