A celebration of mediocrity

Florence Foster Jenkins

In a famous parable, a small child shouts out, “The emperor has no clothes!” thereby breaking the spell of a mass bamboozlement fuelled by fear of ridicule.

In Florence Foster Jenkins, there are many such children, longing to cry out that the society heiress had no talent, but none could bring themselves to do so.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a self-promoted, demi-celebrity in 1940s New York City high society.

The passionate patron of the arts, an heiress to a fortune, longed to be a celebrated opera singer. She made recordings of famous soprano arias that were so terrible, they became the ’40s version of viral sensations.

The film follows her relationship with doting husband and failed thespian St. Clair Bayfield as they not only navigate, but dominate Second World War high society in New York City.

As St. Clair reveals, he has spent the last 20 years protecting Florence. He pays people to attend her concerts and bribes crooked newspaper reviewers to write gushing reviews.

Florence has aspirations to be a great operatic soprano and is determined to take voice lessons from a famous maestro, which means she needs a personal pianist.

Cosme McMoon thinks he’s won the lottery, earning $150 a week to play for her – until he hears her sing.

Everyone is on the take from Florence – her husband, Cosme and even the maestro as he is paid handsomely to give Ms. Jenkins voice lessons — but will not tell her she has a terrible singing voice.

It is only when Florence books Carnegie Hall for a concert that the deception starts to go sideways. How will the devoted husband St. Clair keep the charade up on this scale?

St. Clair is younger than Jenkins and it is clear they have a relationship of convenience. While loving, they have never been intimate due to her syphilis, which she contracted from her first husband on her wedding night when she was only 18.

St. Clair kisses her good night each night then takes a taxi to his own apartment and his other life with the beautiful young Kathleen.

Kathleen is willing to share St. Clair and despite being in the role of “the other woman,” is sympathetic to his relationship.

Meryl Streep is brilliant as the deluded, but delightful Florence. Although Streep is a fine singer, there are moments when the audience guffawed at her vocal striations.

Streep plays Florence with a spoiled, child-like vacancy that is endearing, but has an undefined edge to it. Florence created a world where everyone tells her yes and one has the feeling that if anyone ever said no, she would strike like a serpent.

No spoilers here, but she carries around something everywhere she goes that indicates she knows full well she’s calling the shots.

Hugh Grant is at his best as he plays St. Clair Bayfield with loving sincerity. He confesses to Cosme, “once I abandoned all ambitions, my life became happy.”

Repeatedly, he asserts that they indeed live a happy life, but there is a sadness and resignation in his eyes that we can’t help but sympathize with. St. Clair is using Florence, but he is fiercely loyal and supportive, which creates a complex character that is every bit as interesting as Florence.

Simon Helberg (better known as Howard in Big Bang Theory) is perfect as pianist Cosme McMoon. He is a master at manipulating his face and the incredulity he registers hearing Florence sing for the first time is acting perfection.

Like St. Clair, Cosme is a mediocre talent and he takes Florence’s money and bides his time rather than pursue his own musical ambitions.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) brings beautiful performances out of his actors that are honest and genuine. In roles that could have been nothing more than campy mockery, these are real people who are flawed and striving to find their way.

Cinematographer Danny Cohen (The Danish Girl, Room, Les Miserables) perfectly captures 1940s New York City with rich, warm tones that invite you into the inner circle whether of Florence’s home or Carnegie Hall.

The overall tone of the film is light hearted and the sadder, more desperate inner workings of Florence’s, St. Clair or Cosme’s minds are never really addressed. The result is a pleasant romp that will entertain and delight.

Until the day she died in 1944 (merely a month after her fabled sold-out Carnegie Hall appearance), Florence believed it was her calling to be a famous singer.

As she was fond of saying, “People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing.”

She achieved her goal.

I give this film 4 and a half hearts out of 5.

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About the Author

Kim Foreman-Rhindress is a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City and London Western Conservatory of music for piano and voice. 

Kim has been performing in theatre and film for over 30 years in Canada, NYC, Palm Beach, Los Angeles, and the Netherlands. She has written several plays which have been produced in Canada and the U.S., and is the founder of Kelowna Voice Lab - helping people find their voice, be it singing or acting. 

A working musician, she performs regularly in Kelowna with her husband, Jim Rhindress, in an acoustic duo Smitten, and with her vintage trio Kitsch 'n Sync.  

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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