Susan Granger’s review of “Florence Foster Jenkins” (Paramount Pictures)
The 1940s was a kinder, gentler era – a time when a generous, good-hearted, if delusional diva packed Manhattan’s famed Carnegie Hall and people cheered as she enthusiastically sang off-key.
Socialite heiress Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) truly believed she was a gifted opera singer. The coloratura soprano she heard in her head was sublime; the reality that her excruciating voice quavered never deterred her in the slightest.
Employing Metropolitan Opera conductor Carlo Edwards (David Haig) as her vocal coach, she endowed New York’s Verdi Club, where adoring audiences encouraged her screeching.
If she could not achieve acclaim, she could buy it – with the help of her dedicated husband/manager St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and loyal, long-suffering accompanist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg).
“Music matters: it is my life,” declares Jenkins, who contracted syphilis from her first husband on their wedding night, necessitating celibacy in her subsequent marriage to Bayfield, a failed Shakespearean actor.
But, in 1944, when Madame Florence insisted on giving a public concert, distributing 1,000 free tickets to U.S. servicemen, Bayfield realized that her illusions would inevitably be shattered.
Wearing a fat suit, bedecked with pearls, feathers and gossamer angel wings, Meryl Streep transcends grotesquerie, eliciting empathy by embodying often-imperious, yet emotionally fragile Florence with sensitive respect and heartbreaking understanding.
Energetically at her side, Hugh Grant embodies indulgent devotion within their complicated marital ‘arrangement’ which discreetly includes his own Brooklyn apartment and mistress (Rebecca Ferguson).
Along with their outstanding ensemble, screenwriter Nicholas Martin and director Stephen Frears rely on production designer Alan McDonald and costumer Consolata Boyle for period authenticity.
After warbling in “Ricky and the Flash,” “Mamma Mia!” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” it’s not surprising that Meryl Streep does her own singing; it takes true artistry to sound that awful.
(French filmmaker Xavier Giannoli recently fictionalized a similar story, “Marguerite,” set in the 1920s.)
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Florence Foster Jenkins” is a tragi-comic, sentimental 7, a poignant celebration of indulged eccentricity and pursuing your dreams.