Photo: Todd Plitt, USA TODAY
Meryl Streep absolutely nails the comedy in Florence Foster Jenkins, playing the woman who couldn’t sing but did sing anyway. The hilarity lies not just in the vocal perfection of her squawks and shrieks, but also in the physicality of her fervent attempts at coloratura soprano. She reminded me very much of Hyacinth Bucket (“It’s Bou-QUET!”) with a dash of Edina Monsoon – women who, in their respective sitcoms, were equally vain and self-absorbed, blissfully disregarding others’ opinions and constantly overextending themselves.
Not that this film is a comedy. Well it is, but it’s also a drama; it’s both. This was made most clear to me during the climax at Carnegie Hall, where I found myself alternately afflicted with heartache (from sympathy) and stomachache (from laughter), a bipolar moviegoing experience if there ever was one. How did audiences react to Florence in real life? Did they laugh at her as they would a clown? Did they cheer her on with deepest sincerity? Maybe they were like the character in the film who starts out offering the brashest, most derisive laughter and ends up springing to Florence’s defence, becoming her most ardent supporter.
The screenplay by Nicholas Martin (primarily a writer for British television, according to IMDb) explores a small web of relationships and prods each strand to inspect its genuineness. The main pair examined is Florence and St Clair, who seem to be involved in a sexless sham marriage (albeit an unofficial one), seeing that he maintains a secret affair with a younger and more fun-loving woman. Is St Clair with Florence merely for the money, or does he feel true affection for her? Is he loyal at all or purely unfaithful?
My favourite scene is when Florence pays a surprise visit to the apartment of Cosmé, her talented and mystified pianist. I like how it is a series of quid pro quo transactions, yet it is also just two human beings getting to know and coming to like each other. I like how, when reminiscing her love-at-first-sight encounter with St Clair, Florence first recalls the romance of what she was wearing: “a violet velvet gown”. The entire exchange is surprising, hilarious, poignant.
While Florence may be the central premise of the story, I would say St Clair is the central character. It is his emotional journey that we follow the most closely, and it is through his eyes that we experience the entire Florence saga. Hugh Grant here gives quite possibly his best performance yet, conveying emotions in conflict and a mind racing to sustain a balancing act and mend a crumbling facade. What are his motivations, though? Is he a man who acts out of self-interest or for the sake of others?
The love and affirmation that Florence, St Clair and Cosmé extend to one another stems perhaps from their mutual understanding of what it is to need love and affirmation. Unlike the aforementioned Mrs Bou-QUET or Ms Monsoon, who verge on a pathological inability to love another person, these characters simply take before they give and eventually settle into a complex symbiotic equilibrium – into a blend of deep delusion and true happiness, a mix of hidden agendas and genuine affection. Very often we ask True or False, expecting and requiring the answer to be one or the other, when, very often, it’s both.