How to describe the singing voice of Florence Foster Jenkins, philanthropist, socialite and now heroine of her own biopic? As heard in recordings, it could be a yelp; occasionally a honk; reaching for the high notes, you were better just to run. But mostly, it was the sound of self-delusion, of a uniquely terrible singer who heard angels when she sang. Such is the stuff of this deft little comedy, starring Meryl Streep as the heiress Florence.
“Based on true events,” a title card announces in the now customary manner of director Stephen Frears, adding Jenkins to Tony Blair, Lance Armstrong and Queen Elizabeth II in his menagerie of subjects. The tone is jaunty, the backdrop the Upper West Side of 1944. Genteel eccentricity is on show from the start, as Jenkins hosts a soirée and frets that an actual bathtub of potato salad may not satisfy her guests.
But the fun really begins when she arrives by the piano. There, she reveals herself as the butcher of Mozart, destroyer of Strauss. It’s not just that Jenkins can’t sing in a way more profound than the way you or I can’t sing. The crux of Florence Foster Jenkins is that she loved to share her talent. At home, a house-trained and often slightly deaf audience are discreetly vetted by her urbane companion St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). But Jenkins decides she needs a new challenge. Enter an elfin pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), and the promise of a concert at Carnegie Hall, where Bayfield can no longer handpick the crowd.
It takes skill to keep us laughing in a film with only one gag, but Frears’ deadpan is the ideal accompaniment. He also keeps the joke from turning cruel. An unscrupulous vocal coach questions Bayfield’s motives. “She spoils us all, doesn’t she?” he sneers. But the truth is both sweeter and sadder.
Frears, you suspect, intends to put two fingers up at what the film calls “the mockers and scoffers”. Streep is another perfect fit, too bulletproof for pity. As for Grant, it would be lazy to call the silken Bayfield the role he was born to play: there are untold generations of Grants through history who lived and died solely for the purpose.