I loved Florence Foster Jenkins and I didn’t expect to: Hugh Grant, Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg (from The Big Bang Theory) are terrific and it’s laugh-out loud funny, camp, touching. Stephen Frears is really superb in creating and maintaining a tone for the film that allows us to laugh at but also feel for all of the characters involved.
Meryl Streep plays Florence, the deluded society lady who lives for music, loves performing it, and hires out Carnegie Hall so she can share her gift with the world. Streep’s performance is a tricky one: she could have sung badly and simply grate our ears; or she could have made the singing comic but go a bit too broad and we would lose sight of the person, her delusions and vulnerabilities. Her performance is a tour de force: I laughed at each wrong note, incrementally, and more so because of the relish with which Street acts it out. She’s greatly aided by her costumes, enormous vulgar tiaras, piles of bracelets and necklaces and gigantic tassle earrings that teeter dangerously with each note and frame Streeps’ eager and gleeful eyes. It’s what she lives for.
Hugh Grant has always been under-rated. There’s been no better light comedian in the last two decades. As St. Claire Bayfield, Jenkin’s watchful husband, he’s not just funny but touching. He’s the man who makes all of Florence’s delusions possible; who cocoons her against a too harsh world; and that takes charm, and money, and steel and a considerable amount of self-sacrifice. He keeps reiterating the happiness of the world they’ve created for each other; and his performance makes you believe it. But Grant also conveys the sadness and strain of the failed actor; one who loves to recite and has played in Hamlet but too hastily adds that not the leading part of course; the toll of looking after her needs; and the price he’s paid. Grant gets each laugh and also, perhaps for the first time, not only evokes Hugh Grant but also simultaneously embodies a complex character, one we believe in, where dreams of art and acclaim, what he provides for her, have faded; and he’s been left only with her and what she provides for him: riches and glamour; it’s part of the greatness of his performance that he makes us understand both how little and how much that is.
If Grant hasn’t been given his due, neither has Frears. After, landmark films for forty years (from My Beautiful Laundrette onwards) and after the extraordinary work of restrained emotion that was last year’s Philomena, doesn’t the man deserve more credit? Who else can maintain and sustain a tone in which delicacy of feeling, farce, drawing room comedy and melodrama, can co-exist so easily in a period setting?
I recommend it.