Meryl Streep plays real-life New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins who was a long-time supporter of music and an amateur soprano. What makes her story remarkable is that she occasionally performed, usually to supportive groups of friends, and was recorded several times even though she was not very good. Directed by Stephen Frears and also starring Hugh Grant as Florence’s husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield, this is the same story that is the basis of the French film Marguerite, also currently in release.
This is quite an engaging film. It’s sense of time and place is strong, showing the sheltered world of wealthy New Yorkers in the early 40s. We can see that Florence is an innocent, so bolstered by the protectiveness of St. Clair that she is oblivious to her own lack of talent. We can see why she has so many supporters, like Eddie the Eagle, she has an optimism and courage that inspires others, albeit sometimes after a moment of incredulity and ridicule. Streep plays Jenkins with a lot of heart and avoids making her a caricature. We are given an explanation for her eccentricity and this, along with her harmlessness, positions her as worthy of sympathy.
It seems this telling of Florence’s story is relatively factual, unlike Marguerite which transposes Florence from 40s New York to 20s Paris and plays it for laughs. St Clair and Florence’s bumbling pianist, Cosme McMoon, are given a lot of prominence in the story, to the point where their experience and journey seems to be the real focus of the film. We come to understand their challenges and motivation much more than Florence’s, although she is at the core of the narrative. It seems Florence was more of a business woman than portrayed, supported by but not wholly reliant on St Clair’s protection.