Skip to content

In 'Florence Foster Jenkins,' Love Is Tone-Deaf

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant make sweet music

(Video) Florence Foster Jenkins Movie Trailer: This is the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 1 hour 50 minutes

Stars: Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Meryl Streep

Director: Stephen Frears

In a season when movies practically plead for attention, then go supernova in a bid to impress us with their technological wizardry, it's refreshing to watch seasoned pros Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant provide first-rate entertainment as breezily as they might sing in the shower.

The story of Florence Foster Jenkins — a Manhattan socialite whose tone-deafness did not keep her from filling Carnegie Hall for a now-legendary (and critically disastrous) 1944 concert — has cried out for movie treatment for decades. Oddly, this year has seen two films based on her life: a wonderful fictionalized version from France called Marguerite, and this warmhearted account starring Streep as the clueless Florence, Grant as her loving (and enabling) husband, and Big Bang Theory costar Simon Helberg as her long-suffering piano accompanist.

Meryl Streep in 'Florence Foster Jenkins'

Nick Wall/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Meryl Streep belting catawauls as Manhattan socialite Florence Foster Jenkins

From the opening frames, director Stephen Frears creates a sense of otherworldliness around Florence and her friends. We are in an intimate Manhattan theatrical venue, poorly lit and filled with aging, tuxedoed aristocrats and their tiara-topped ladies. Onstage, an elegantly ragtag group of amateur thespians is presenting a series of tableaus, enacting historic moments and re-creating famous works of art. The queen bee of the group is clearly Florence, a matronly presence who works her way to the center of each scene, and who draws the most enthusiastic applause from the admiring assemblage.

But Florence is more than just a mute stage presence. On occasion she performs vocal recitals for small audiences. These groups are carefully curated by her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a British blueblood and sometime actor who issues recital tickets to "music lovers" only — that is, obliging types who dare not acknowledge that Florence has the voice and stage presence of a newly castrated bull moose.

Predictably, the situation spirals out of control. Florence, convinced that she possesses an innate musical genius, dreams of a recording career — and, pinnacle of pinnacles, a one-woman concert at Carnegie Hall. And because she has the financial wherewithal to make that happen, her poor husband can go only so far to protect her from the atonal truth.

Frears, the two-time Oscar nominee who directed Helen Mirren in The Queen and Judi Dench in Philomena, pulls off an impressive trifecta with Streep, who masterfully balances the broad comedy and sad pathos that follow Florence. Grant's recent work has put few demands on his true talents, but he's a revelation here. The star's boyish features have settled handsomely into his midlife face, and his character plies his trademark stiff-upper-lip charm to achieve a precise end: wooing the world into complicity with his protective agenda.

There are plenty of laughs in Florence Foster Jenkins — particularly when unsuspecting listeners get their first earful of her bellowing tones. The aghast gape of Helberg, when his character first accompanies Florence, is especially priceless. But even then, as Streep's face ignites in a glow of deluded rapture, a disquieting sense of guilt creeps over us. We like Florence, and we can't help sharing her husband's dread that some day, somehow, the elaborate jig will be up.

The most wondrous scenes in Florence Foster Jenkins are those where the big screen offers us nothing but the indelible movie-star faces of Streep and Grant, breathing life into their characters. Streep's Florence is a pitiful bundle of unjustified insecurities and unwarranted confidence; Grant's St. Clair, while clearly enjoying the fruits of his wife's riches, remains singlemindedly devoted to her. In their most intimate moments, eye-to-eye, they share more secrets than the script allows.

It's a pleasant reminder that great acting is the most special of special effects.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.