“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” Dolly Parton once said, and she seems like the kind of lady Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) would have appreciated. Jenkins, a real-life 20th-century socialite famed — or infamous — for her unique singing voice, had a similar gift: Her talent was to make great music sound singularly, spectacularly bad.
Jenkins may have been the emu of songbirds, but she never knew it: Cushioned by her vast wealth and coddled by a circle of kind friends and calculating sycophants, she indulged her love of performing in private self-financed concerts for years before a larger legend began to spread to the general public. And no one worked harder to help maintain those delusions than her devoted husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a faded English aristocrat and aspiring actor who genuinely adored her, despite his long-term infidelity. (He “plays golf” a lot.)
Streep of course is impeccable at everything, including being awful, and Florence’s loopy narcissism gets some needed context when the more tragic aspects of her past are revealed. Grant’s tender, conflicted performance, though, is a small revelation; he’s been given a much quieter instrument, but he plays it beautifully. (The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg, as a fluttery, high-strung accompanist, has some great moments too, as does Tony winner Nina Arianda.)
It would be easy to mine Jenkins’ story for silly farce and 1940s set pieces and let it coast from there, but director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) is too kind, and too nuanced, to do that. Even when she’s murdering a high C, his Florence finds the melody. B+