Hugh Grant costars as the helpmate of a woman who had a song in her heart (and probably should have kept it there)

By Tom Gliatto
Updated August 10, 2016 02:45 PM
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Credit: Nick Wall

In later life, it seems, the great soprano Maria Callas could be discovered alone in her apartment, leafing through old press clippings and murmuring sadly, “Why didn’t they love me?”

The amateur classical singer Florence Foster Jenkins, played by Meryl Streep in this wonderful comedy from director Stephen Frears (The Queen), was more like the Anti-Callas, but the poor woman ultimately may have wondered the same thing. The great and the awful all end up singing the blues.

This Manhattan society matron had a voice so mewlingly, screechingly, ear-assaultingly off-key that, by the time of her death in 1944, she had become a kind of minor musical joke among the classical cognoscenti. Several recordings of her warblings, including the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute, can be found online. If you want to hear her exuberant demolition of Mozart, go for it.

And yet she was shielded from a true critical and public reaction – up to a point. She possessed a generous and philanthropic heart, for one thing, and this earned her false, smiling applause from Manhattan’s cultural elite. And her companion, a failed Shakespearean actor named St. Clair Bayfield, spared no effort to weed out any spoiler who might be disinclined to shower his diva with bouquets and applause. She was like Catherine the Great with a musical Potemkin village.

Streep plays this deluded creature with the endearing simplicity, almost, of a holy fool. Florence, who possesses the comfortably upholstered bosom of so many aging character actresses who turn up in black-and-white movies on Turner Classics, is not a difficult or even unkind woman. She has a certain pluckiness and resolve (an early, failed marriage left her trying to fend off the ravages of syphilis – the disease’s long-term damage, some have speculated, may have thrown off whatever internal apparatus allowed her to hear herself).

But even so, the voice! It could shatter glass. As with a crowbar, not a high C.

The part gives Streep a rare opportunity for physical comedy: When Florence sings, the notes appear to be forcing their way into her lungs instead of out. It’s close to slapstick, and very funny, but also pitiable. Hugh Grant, as Bayfield, strikes a similar note: He’s a ludicrous gentleman who treats Florence with care and kindness even while sponging off her 24/7 and keeping a mistress stashed away in the apartment Florence rents for him. Their performances function very much as a duet of two eccentric charmers. They’re in full harmony.

And, to extend the metaphor, they have fine backup from The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg as Florence’s pianist-accompanist, the intriguingly named Cosme McMoon.

RELATED VIDEO: Hugh Grant Reveals His ‘Fear’ of Working with Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence’s only real flaw, apart from her lack of singing talent, is her pride. And it’s her pride that suffers a terrible blow at the end of this very bittersweet film. This, you have to remember, was in an era before you could bomb in front of an audience of millions on American Idol and expect to have a career as a novelty act.

Director Frears maintains a quick, frolicsome tone right up until the moment Florence receives her coup de grace, which he delivers with a bold, simple and unexpected shot that’s something of a masterstroke.