How do you solve a problem like Florence? The easy answer, add Meryl Streep. The more complex answer, surround her with interesting co-stars and filmmakers. For as great as Meryl is, “Florence Foster Jenkins” once again illustrates how Streep’s game is raised when she is with the right people.
On paper, the film sounds almost like a parody of a Streep film. Florence Foster Jenkins is a wealthy socialite during World War II era New York who runs the classical music scene. She does it all with the help of her doting husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a former actor-turned-showman fundraiser for Florence. As Florence’s health wanes, she pursues her singing career, hiring aspiring pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg). The only catch is Florence can’t sing to save her life. Still, St Clair rigs it so Florence can achieve her dream while she still can, singing at Carnegie Hall in the process.
What elevates the film are the rougher edges that aren’t sanded off to make this the ultimate matinee for older ladies. St Clair and Florence’s relationship is chaste as Florence is afflicted with syphilis. After doing all of her bidding during the day and putting Florence to bed in the evening, St Clair heads to his separate apartment where he has a much younger paramour, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). This wrinkle in the relationship is the dirty undercurrent that blankets the character’s motivations throughout the film. St Clair loves Florence and shows his selfless devotion to her. However, he isn’t above living a lavish life of leisure and fun with a younger woman. The paid apartment, the weekend trip, the swinging parties – it’s an interesting setup to say the least.
Rarely is Streep not the star of her own show. However, I don’t think she counted on a career rejuvenating performance from Grant. His St Clair is a complex man leading a double life not shrouded in darkness and disdain. He is a balanced man nearly held hostage by his love and devotion for Florence. He knows she doesn’t have the talent to be the next great singer, but he knows she has the heart. There is a great deal of comedy, flop sweat and terror as St Clair does everything he can to shield Florence from her mocking crowd. In many ways, he is the protagonist of the story as he reconciles himself with the fact that he can’t keep Florence locked away in her private bubble forever. It would be fitting and deserving if Grant received his first Academy Award nomination here.
That’s not to say Streep isn’t strong in the film. She is simply luminous and commands the screen. It is always a joy to see comedian Streep come to play. Florence’s many botched notes can only be delivered by someone so talented. Additionally, Streep knows how to play at the heartstrings. However, it does not rank with the top performances the great actress has delivered over her career. In many ways, what would be a career role for other actresses almost reads as old hat for her. She doesn’t seem to really stretch her range or talent here. When she plays off Grant she is spectacular. However, in similar scenes against only Helberg, who oscillates between being out of place and wooden throughout, Streep can’t seem to propel the scene.
The other element that separates the film from its concept is the impeccable craft. The production design is gorgeous. It revels in every bright light and shiny trinket of the New York elite. The gowns, the parties, the buildings – everything is grand, smiling and fun. Director Stephen Frears sure knows how to do impeccable, detailed work even in frothy comedies. Nominations for art direction, costume design and makeup do not seem out of the question at all. In many ways, they are indicative of the overall quality of the film. It’s glossy and fun, with some really interesting details to sink into. However, it never rises to be more than an overall confection. Like Florence, it hits more than a few wonky notes, but makes up for it in bravado and heart.