Florence Foster Jenkins

Posted on August 11, 2016 at 5:29 pm

Copyright 2016 BBC Films
Copyright 2016 BBC Films

The charm of the popular “Lip Synch Battle” series is the way that the contestants, all very talented and successful performers, transcend the limits of race and gender — and other limits, too, like vocal range. In her way, real-life heiress Florence Foster Jenkins was doing the same thing a century ago. Her dedication to music was monumental. So was her lack of talent. But she lived a blissful life with a devoted husband, staging elaborate tableaux and concerts. Like the emperor with the non-existent and therefore invisible new clothes, she was surrounded by people who never told her that her singing was a disaster in every category, from hitting the right note to staying in any single key from measure to measure.

In the second film of 2016 based on the life of Ms. Jenkins, Meryl Streep gives (of course) a performance of exquisite humanity and precision. (Earlier this year, the French film, “Marguerite,” was also inspired by Jenkins.) You have to know how to sing well (see “Mamma Mia,” “Postcards from the Edge,” and “Ricki and the Flash”) to sing this badly and you have to be an actor of sublime perfection to make terrible singing funny and brave and poignant. Hugh Grant is also superb as the magnificently named St. Clair Bayfield, Jenkins’ consort, a failed Shakespearean actor who shares Jenkins’ passion for performance and almost envies her complete freedom from self-awareness.

There are lovely performances from Nina Arianda as a brassy showgirl who married a wealthy man, Rebecca Ferguson (“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”) as Bayfield’s girlfriend, and “Big Bang Theory’s” Simon Helberg as Jenkins’ long-suffering accompanist, the equally magnificently named Cosmé McMoon. Jenkins is the ultimate exemplar of the Dunning-Kruger syndrome: those who are least able are also worst at assessing their own ability. The fun of this film, far more than laughing smugly at Jenkins’ cluelessness, is the fantasy of having endless resources to create our own fantasies of stardom.

Parents should know that this film includes drinking, smoking, sexual references and non-explicit situation, and a sad death.

Family discussion: Was St. Clair right to hide the truth from Florence? What do we learn from her visit to Cosme?

If you like this, try: The documentary “Florence Foster Jenkins: A World Of Her Own”

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Based on a true story Biography Comedy Drama Musical