Before I begin the analysis, it’s time for a full disclosure. No, I don’t know anyone associated with the film, and I have no vested financial interest in it. But I look at films like this differently from most other folks. To begin with, I’m a musician. I sing, play the piano, work with other vocalists, direct a choir, accompany our local college choir, am part of a small musical theatre troupe, occasionally musically direct and often perform musically with my wife, who has a glorious soprano voice. I’ve also studied musicals most of my life, and am currently writing a book on some musicals, focusing in part on the vocals. So I can’t see this film from a distance. The reality of singing and accompanying is too much a part of my life.
That aside, this film is in part a traditional “well-made” film that just happens to successfully balance elements that could have sent the film careening in one direction or another. Florence Foster Jenkins was a rich, entitled, clueless society woman with a great interest in music and very little sense of pitch. People say she had a terrible voice. That’s not quite true. Her voice was OK, but it was buried under a near complete inability to hit more than two notes at a time on the correct pitch. The fact that she was some kind of coloratura soprano made this all the more painful to listen to, as she felt more comfortable “singing” in the upper reaches of her high soprano range, where the musical massacres were all the more dramatic.
To present this kind of personality in any realistic sense involves the derision and criticism her voice invited. But most filmmakers won’t construct a film on such a weak foundation. So we have a variety of viewpoints, at one moment hilariously appalled, then spitefully critical, then sympathetic and then, campily supportive. The film doesn’t quite synthesize these attitudes, but manages to present them all as legitimate, perhaps even legitimate at the same moment. There may not be a recent film that has its main characters (except Jenkins, of course) convey such a variety of thoughts and reactions at the same time as this one: joy, confusion, bewilderment, offensiveness, and self-service all flit across the faces of the other characters, depending on what Florence is doing.
The script contributes to the mixed yet basically respectful perspectives we have on the lead character. Early in the film, we track with the surprised and horror-struck pianist (Simon Helberg), who has a classic “can’t hold it in any longer” scene that we’ll likely see replayed many times over in the coming years. But just as we dismiss Florence as an addled old lady with too much money and too little self-awareness, we get more of her backstory, and our sympathies are engaged. The more we learn, the more we understand. Yet truthfully, the film doesn’t quite satisfactorily explain how her (spoiler alert) “husband” really feels about her. He is her ardent supporter, yet with his own set of conflicting thoughts and emotions about her talents, especially as he is hearing her “sing”. He seems to support her in her illusions, and works hard to protect her from the realities of her weaknesses. But other than cold-hearted greed and/or at least financial dependency, which seems to have been an integral part of their relationship, the film shies away from going anywhere near there, leading to something of a question mark in understanding their relationship dynamics.
The other question the film doesn’t seem to pin down to this viewer’s satisfaction is why and how she came to be such a phenomenon. There is a little “You go, girl” thrown in at the end from a minor character. But that attitude doesn’t seem to be part and parcel of her listening audience. We’re certain made aware of her wealth, but the apparent sycophancy of the members of her many music groups and circles is only vaguely suggested, leaving us wondering how intelligent (and in most cases, musically intelligent) people could let this charade continue for so long. The film’s tag line, “You don’t have to be good to be great” suggests something the film doesn’t quite deliver.
Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Philomena) may have been the perfect choice for combining hard reality with soft edges, and he does that again here. In other hands, this film could have been cruel, or an indictment of the upper classes of New York combined with a “Look, the emperor has no clothes” kind of attitude. But he makes sure that in spite of her lacks (and shunting aside what must have been a rather controlling and imperious attitude) and cluelessness, we care for her, and nearly adopt the protective attitude of her “husband.” (See the documentary on her from 2008 to understand the quotes.)
Working with that vision are three actors giving some of the best characterizations of the year. Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield gives a surprisingly shaded and deep performance (see https://film-prof.com/2013/04/15/actors-and-line-readers/), walking a tightrope between genuine loving care and complete indulgence. Helberg as Cosmé McMoon (yes, that’s a real name) may have the most difficult male role in that we are meant to relate to him and to track with his shock and his own developing desires for a career. His scene of accompanying his first voice lesson with Florence is full of complicated emotional reactions while being uproariously funny at the same time. He is the one person keeping the film grounded in some kind of relatable reality, and he does it well.
Of course the film belongs to Meryl Streep, who proves once again the vast scope of her acting talents. I’ve never been a big fan of her singing voice, but here her musicality is used to its fullest extent. Only a real singer, or at least an actor with a good understanding of singing, could pull off the vocal challenges of playing Florence Foster Jenkins. It takes someone good to sing this badly. That in itself is one of the greatest technical challenges of her career, right up there with her various languages in Sophie’s Choice. Yet more than that, this role calls for Streep to turn her most common artistic criticism on its head. She has been rightly described as being a bit too technically oriented, and not warm and relatable enough in her characterizations. She can be a bit too cool and distant at times. Here, though, she is the opposite, and gives Florence a warmth and sympathy she may not have had in real life. Streep is the warmest presence in the film (words I thought I’d never write), and helps us care greatly for her character even as we scratch our heads in amazement and confusion about the reactions and motivations of those around her. She’ll of course receive another record Oscar nomination, and deservedly so. Conquering the vocal challenges is difficult enough (and I’m not sure how many other actresses could do it); helping us see why people laugh at her, and then getting us to care so much for her is as difficult as the off-key singing.
Finally, however, this is a very funny film, the funniest I’ve seen in ages. Being a singer and an accompanist puts me in the position of enjoying some of the humor more deeply than others, perhaps. But the film itself is light and deft enough to be enjoyed by everyone. Balancing its many strands of appreciation, horror, humor and sympathy is some kind of triumph. Happily for most viewers, however, the sheer enjoyment of the experience makes us forget all the hard work and artistic success behind the scenes, and presents the wonder that was FFJ.