By Cynthia Biddlecomb
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is a BBC/Pathé Pictures release starring Meryl Streep as the 20th century heiress and performer who only thought she could sing. Her mostly true story is both funny and sad, but beautifully presented in this film. Lavish costumes and sets reflect the Victorian era in which Florence grew up—she was born in 1868—as a counterpoint to 1944, the year the story takes place.
By 1944 Florence Foster Jenkins was 76 and had been a New York socialite all her adult life. She had been a piano protégé, giving a recital at the age of 8 in the Hayes White House. She went on to teach piano, but suffered an arm injury that put an end to that career.
Inheriting a fortune from her parents, her love of music made her a beloved patron of the musical arts. As “Chairman of Music” for her social clubs, she would produce lavish tableaux vivants, a popular form of entertainment in her day. Of course, she would cast herself as the star of the tableaux, wearing elaborate costumes of her own invention.
Along the way, she founded the Verdi Club, promoting a “love and patronage of Grand Opera in English” (Wikipedia).The film casts Meryl Streep (who we know has a decent voice) as Florence, a woman who can’t sing properly. Streep, the amazing, Oscar-winning actress, has taken yet another challenging role, this time having to sing so poorly that audiences will laugh, as they did in Florence’s day.
Hugh Grant is cast as Florence’s husband, the aristocratic actor St. Clair Bayfield, who is entirely ingratiating and supportive of Florence. An added bonus to this film is Simon Helberg (Big Bang Theory) in a stand out role as Florence’s piano accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. His character shows us how others before him came to love Florence’s irrepressible spirit. We learn in the course of the film that Florence has survived an amazing 50 years with Syphilis, which she contracted from her first husband. Modern medical knowledge tells us that progressive deterioration of the central nervous system can be caused by Syphilis.
The treatments in Florence’s day (before antibiotics) included mercury and arsenic, both of which can produce further nerve damage, including hearing loss. Florence Foster Jenkins grows on us as we watch this film. Though she seems oblivious to the fact that her singing is far from perfect, she is an inspired entertainer. The dénouement of the film is her Carnegie Hall performance, to which war veterans were invited. The reviews were scathing.
Five days after this performance Florence took ill. She died within the month.The best reason to see this film is the acting. But the historical setting and the resultant production values make it a feast for the eyes. If you are a Meryl Streep fan, it is a must. If you are a Hugh Grant fan, go just so you can see him swing dance. The film may even make a Simon Helberg fan of us all! Florence Foster Jenkins is rated PG-13 “for brief suggestive material,” though it may be boring for kids.