New York, 1944. As World War II blazes on, heiress and opera lover Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) hires pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her in concerts staged by her husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). One problem: she is a terrible singer.
"Music is my life," says Streep's socialite Florence, as she decides to take her love of opera one step further and sing on the stage. Lack of ability proves to be no obstacle: when you have money, it seems anything is possible, from sell-out concerts to adoring fans. But in the long term, is it possible to maintain Florence's delusion that she has real talent? It's this mission - lead by her husband St. Clair - that gives Stephen Frears' period frolic both humour and heart.
Stephen Frears keeps it as light, jubilant, silly and celebratory as the woman herself.
We first meet Florence and St. Clair while they are performing amateurish pageants for indulgent friends. They appear to dote on each other, but St. Clair slips off to see another woman (Ferguson) when Florence is tucked up in bed. The nature of this complex relationship is gradually revealed without judgement, making St. Clair an increasingly interesting character - though there is never any doubt that money plays a part in his devotion.
Aside from building the characters in a series of luxurious New York settings, the first act is all about waiting for Streep to sing. Badly. Just as the trailer teasingly resists revealing the full horror, Frears delays it for full effect. We hear it for the first time along with Cosmé, a camp, innocent young pianist who has absolutely no idea what he is in for. Watching Helberg is flat-out hilarious. He puts in a wonderfully nuanced comic performance as a range of emotions - from disbelief to hysteria - flicker across his face.
Streep is tremendous as the jolly, optimistic Florence, whose tragic backstory is exposed in moving scenes with Grant (it's his best performance in years). But Frears never pauses too long on the sad stuff: Florence Foster Jenkins is as light, jubilant, silly and celebratory as the woman herself.
A fizzy, funny, period dramedy with top-notch performances, Florence Foster Jenkins doesn't take many risks but it's a very entertaining experience. And yes, she was that bad.