Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins is a likable study of delusions of grandeur. Working from real-life material, Frears creates an alternately funny and mysterious portrait of someone whom most viewers either don’t know at all or regard as an odd footnote in musical history. We first see Florence (Meryl Streep) costumed as a cherub, being pulled down from the ceiling of a stage by men struggling with pulleys against her weight. It’s an apt visual metaphor for this strange performer — Jenkins was a society woman who loved music and was convinced that she could sing, even though her warble sounded like the pained yelpings of a dog.
There is subversive pleasure in seeing Streep, consistently considered one of the best actresses, playing someone consistently remembered as one of the worst singers. While it would be easy to write off this biopic as yet another instance of the vaunted thesp portraying a historical figure and putting on an accent, she gives a compelling performance, her drawn-on eyebrows suggesting constant surprise, and her haughty inflections amusingly reminiscent of Margaret Dumont. Beneath this surface, caked with sparkling headdresses and ruffled gowns that sag more than they should, Streep finds pathos. There is no narration, and it is not until the end of the film that we discover all the drama that has played out during the final year of Jenkins’ life.
We cannot help but wonder: Does Jenkins have any idea how bad she sounds? Frears intentionally eschews internal monologue, leaving the audience to parse his subject’s expressions, mannerisms and especially her curiously opaque relationship with her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, performing full English reserve that becomes sleaze as soon as his wife is out of the room). Jenkins and Bayfield maintain their chaste union in a stuffy, overly decorated home where even the chairs are meant to be looked at rather than used. He’s his wife’s greatest musical advocate, but we know he is mostly playing along, creating an illusion to keep her happy. Bayfield’s stiff upper lip while Jenkins practices with her music teacher is borderline painful to watch. She butchers the songs, of course, and he can’t tell her how she really sounds. It could be funny, but then he goes off with his younger girlfriend, leaving Jenkins and her misguided fantasies alone.
We don’t see much of Jenkins’ earlier life, though we do learn that she was previously married and contracted syphilis. In one jarring moment, Bayfield removes her wig as she falls asleep, and we see that she is totally bald as a result of her medical treatments. She has suffered and now, when we see her, she knows what she wants. Musical success is a stand-in for some happiness she has missed out on. Rather than offer more context on the person she was before moving to New York, the film stays within the realm of Jenkins’ time of “fame.”
While the Streep-starring-biopic patina of awards season potential is obvious, Frears thankfully finds humor in the story. Nina Arianda has a small role as Agnes, a sassy blonde who topples with laughter upon seeing Jenkins perform — a mean-spirited reaction, but there’s something cathartic about a brash, humorous release like this in the midst of a period piece. Jenkins’ pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) provides a more consistent comic counterpoint to her delusions. Helberg has a way with a smug reaction shot, and more than once his character suppresses a laugh in Jenkins’ presence, only to let it out in a great, gasping after he’s left the room. McMoon and Bayfield’s conversations are tense, with Bayfield never outright acknowledging his wife’s lack of talent.
Frears peppers the film with some quirky elements, like wipe transitions suggesting sets being pushed away on the stage of Jenkins’ life. Curious visual elements, like a bathtub filled with potato salad to serve a party, make appearances, and the film would benefit from even more of these idiosyncratic motifs that distinguish it from workmanlike biopics.
The film cares more about the insular qualities of class than about trying to make Jenkins’ story inspirational or universal. Florence thinks her voice deserves to be heard because she is wealthy, and no one tells her otherwise. She works with musicians and plays concerts because she can afford to, and financial control is a menacing, seductive force that reaches a head when Bayfield bribes a newspaper salesman into letting him throw out copies of a paper with a negative review of his wife’s infamous Carnegie Hall performance.
So how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Not with practice, but with money and delusion. As Florence approaches her death, we hear the voice she hears in her head, a melodic and pretty thing. It’s cruel: She’s too far gone. We see her delusions and know that while she was living her dream, audiences couldn’t help but laugh. As she records her vanity album, she smiles after a particularly screechy note: “That sounded perfect to me.” Whether or not that’s all that matters is anyone’s guess.