How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice is all very well. The real-life heiress and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) practised her whole life. “An hour a day!” she boasts in Stephen Frears’s marvellous film. “Sometimes two.” But it isn’t talent that enables her to reach that prestigious venue in 1944. She is wealthy enough to be able to hire it on a whim and to give away a thousand tickets to servicemen returning from the war. Some might wonder if those soldiers hadn’t suffered enough.
What packs the place to the rafters is her reputation. Florence is still known today as the world’s worst singer. Reaching for a note far beyond her range, she would launch herself at it in the manner of someone trying to dislodge a ball from a tree by lobbing a boot. It’s possible that some of the shrieks she emitted were audible only to dogs. The poor blighters.
In a clever, clinching decision by the screenwriter Nicholas Martin, it is Florence’s uxorious husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who provides the dominant point-of-view in the film. His glasses are not merely rose-tinted, but heart-shaped. The couple’s domestic arrangements may be unconventional – St Clair slinks off each night to see his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), at his own apartment, paid for by his wife. But it is with Florence that his true loyalties lie. He is a master at coaxing favourable reactions from those in her orbit. When the young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) comes to audition for Florence, the sound of her voice wipes the innocence from his eyes; he emerges from her drawing room with something resembling post-traumatic stress disorder. But St Clair conducts the young man’s reactions with a nod, a tilt of the head and a widening of the eyes to produce a response that will be broadly flattering to Florence.
In a rich and nuanced performance, Grant radiates warmth. He indicates to others the delighted expression he wants them to adopt for his wife by first adopting it himself, then watching them follow suit. Listening to a reporter filing copy over the phone about Florence’s concert, he makes his presence felt after hearing the phrase “appreciative applause”. The journalist hastily amends the adjective to “thunderous”. Contented, St Clair moves on.
It could be argued that the script deprives Florence of agency in her own story, so that she exists merely through her husband’s eyes. Then again, there is every danger that, without the prism of St Clair’s devotion through which to filter that story, Florence would have been left as cruelly exposed on the screen as she is when she takes to the stage. A similar insurance policy was taken out in Isn’t She Great, in which Bette Midler played the trash novelist Jacqueline Susann. Any scorn or snobbery from the audience was absorbed before it could reach Susann by the device of putting her husband, Irving, in charge of the storytelling. There was no question mark in that film’s title because it was rhetorical. Irving wasn’t asking.
It was to be expected that a director as humane as Frears would not mock his subject. What is magical is the way he modulates our reactions to Florence just as St Clair does on screen. We are still laughing when a recording of the real Florence Foster Jenkins is played over the end credits, but our laughter has become even warmer. The question of whether the title character is oblivious to her own flaws is left moot, as it was in the case of Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s film about the legendarily dreadful director. But then most of the people around her are harbouring delusions. Even St Clair isn’t entirely self-aware. The movie opens with him indulging his thespian tendencies with excruciating results. There is only one full scene in which he doesn’t appear but it’s an important one: Florence confides to Cosme that St Clair can’t act. It is her little secret.
This is an unusually honest portrayal of love as a system whereby two people can maintain one another’s delusions to the point where they almost cease to be delusions at all. If you don’t tell me I’m a prize ham, I’ll keep secretly replacing the champagne flutes that shatter when you practise your scales. That sort of thing.
This article appears in the 04 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred