It's Not Over Until the Iron Lady Sings

Florence Foster Jenkins
(UK, 110 min.)
Dir. Stephen Frears, Writ. Nicholas Martin
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg 
Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins.
Photo courtesy of eOne Films
Meryl Streep’s career as a performer began with opera. One wouldn’t know it from the caterwauling she does in Florence Foster Jenkins, but the hilariously heartfelt screeching as the notoriously bad singer highlights how Meryl Streep is simply marvelous in this role. As chronicled in Michael Schulman’s wonderful book Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, the twelve-year-old Streep underwent lessons with soprano and vocal coach Estelle Liebling, just around the corner from Carnegie Hall where Florence Foster Jenkins enjoys a riotous climax. She learned how to breathe properly and stretch the full register of her vocal chords, while Liebling emphasised the meaning of the text to her students and the importance of covering the full range of the vocal register. It didn’t last, though, for four years later, Meryl recognised her limitations and quit.

Florence Foster Jenkins, on the other hand, studied for years—ok, studied-ish—and always saw herself as the top of the class when she was actually the dunce. In fairness to Miss Foster Jenkins, her class had only one pupil. Streep’s had two.

While their vocal abilities set them apart, Meryl Streep and Florence Foster Jenkins share the same passion for the stage, which is something that Schulman conveys lovingly in the same passage that describes Streep’s realisation that opera wasn’t for her. Performing, on the other hand, was, is, and always will be her artistic calling, and it’s remarkable to see how some early seeds of her education inform her excellent performance as Florence Foster Jenkins.

It’s one thing to sing well, but it’s another feat to mask one’s abilities and perform badly—but act badly in a way that endears oneself to the audience. Florence Foster Jenkins simply can’t carry a tune, yet from the first moment she opens her mouth, she’s bound to become the most beloved singer at the movies this year. The film chronicles the final days of Ms. Foster Jenkins as she and her manager St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), with whom she has a bizarre common-law/ sugar-momma-ish relationship, prepare her to make the leap from tableau performer to star singer.

Jenkins runs New York’s posh Verdi Club where she and Bayfield perform for the guests and inject musical life into the city. They’re both creative types whose unequal ambitions and talents left them more than twenty feet from stardom and a few steps closer to the trap door. They perform kitschy, if lavish, numbers in which he performs monologues and then she—silently—poses with the overtures of an orchestra. When Florence decides that it’s finally time to show off her pipes and leave her mark on New York society, she hires an upstart pianist named Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) for a lucrative training session.

Imagine Mr. McMoon’s surprise when Florence opens her mouth and screeches like a cat in heat. Her voice is among the most awful sounds that one can endure. The first singing lesson of Florence Foster Jenkins, however, marks one of those rare film experiences where everyone in the theatre erupts into a sustained chorus of fat-burning laughter. Streep plays the scene marvellously as she inhabits Florence’s delusion that she is the grand dame of opera. Her utter oblivion to her wailing is hilarious.

Florence Foster Jenkins once again reveals the extraordinary musicality to a great Meryl Streep performance. Using the techniques of timing and breathing underneath a fat suit and some impressive costumes by Consolata Boyle, Streep wheezes and gasps not like a trained opera star, but like an actor. It wouldn’t make sense for Florence to have the technique down pat, so Streep deftly shifts everything over a beat. Florence can’t hit her mark and it’s very, very funny as Streep imbues the physical effort of her character into a farcical offense against good form and talent. This kind of wonderful physical exertion is the stuff of classic screwball comedy.

One must say the same for Streep’s co-stars. As much as Florence Foster Jenkins deserves to be praised for yet another spectacular and fearless Streep performance, both the supporting cast often matches her comedic beat. Helberg is the reaction shot king as Mr. McMoon, who has the unfortunate assignment of carrying every tune with reassuring dignity whilst Florence screeches. The film cuts to Helberg every other time that Florence hits a false note, which is often, and his cringe-worthy suppressions of laughs and guffaws makes the awful music endlessly enjoyable. Ditto a feisty and scene-stealing performance by Nina Arianda (Midnight in Paris) as a floozy trophy wife who pulls through in the end.

Grant, meanwhile, has never been better than he is here as the chivalrously slimy St. Clair.  He wears a resigned appreciation with every encouraging nod he gives while listening to every flat note Florence hits. He makes the cad difficult to love as Florence supports him while he keeps an apartment on her dime, but with another woman (Rebecca Ferguson, who notably refuses to play the role of the sidebar girlfriend) on the sly. They have a strange relationship, but St. Clair’s devotion to Florence’s passion, despite every piece of evidence saying he should do the opposite, makes Florence Foster Jenkins a sweetly endearing love story of compassion and unselfish love.

Under the seamless direction of Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen), Florence Foster Jenkins satirizes its subject while honouring her spirit and courage. The film shows how Florence’s ability to live her passion was a unique privilege. Not everyone can buy her way to stardom, and few singers can afford to four-wall Carnegie Hall, but she did sing at the Holy Grail of live venues in America, which is a claim that few can make. There is something undeniably vulgar about Florence’s blind ambition and her ability to get whatever she wants thanks to her fortune. Altercations between St. Clair and a ruffled arts critic (Christian McKay) highlight this element very well as Florence takes the stage away from an ingénue who could get there on merit. Similarly, the film lets one sympathise with Florence as one sees her surrounded by enablers as men allow her to face awful embarrassment because she buys their favour. The supporting characters exploit her innocent passion just as much as they enable her gluttony.

Underneath every gut-bursting assault of her vocal chords, Streep conveys Florence’s unburning passion. Florence might not be a good singer, but she’s a born performer. Her courage to face the stage offers an inspiring story of a woman who owned her passion without giving a damn. Seeing Florence belly flop while St. Clair fears that dangerous step it takes to become a leading man, one watches the actors share a lesson in taking risks without fear of failure.

The film ends with Streep singing a beautifully melodic aria as Frears lets the audience hear how Florence sounds in her own mind. Streep’s real voice, and Florence’s inner one, is music to the ears as the film ends on a finely tuned note of a life at peace and dreams achieved.

As Streep takes a much different path from her character, she displays a similar fearlessness. She long passed the point in her career where she had nothing left to prove, and one sees in Streep the same unadulterated passion for performing that sparkles in Florence’s eyes. One only gets to such a career peak by taking risks without fearing the consequences. Just as Florence Foster Jenkins lived her dreams, Streep’s award-calibre performance is the true point of inspiration here as it shows that at least one woman can break barriers and headline the kind of smart and entertaining films that few studios produce any more. Like Florence, Streep enjoys a privileged space in her life and career, but she’s worked hard for it and getting to this point in her career wasn’t easy. If only Florence Foster Jenkins, like Streep, had recognised her limitations as an opera singer, they might be equals rather than peculiar kindred spirits. Florence Foster Jenkins can’t hit a high note to save her life, but Florence Foster Jenkins is yet another peak for Meryl Streep.

Florence Foster Jenkins opens in theatres Friday, July 12.
It screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne and in Toronto at The Varsity.