Aria Woman Makes Good: In 'Florence Foster Jenkins,' A Weak Voice, A Strong Heart

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Meryl Streep greets her public in<em> Florence Foster Jenkins.</em>

After decades in which diversity of roles — and accents — seemed to guide her career, Meryl Streep has come to specialize in silver-haired divas. Since 2005, she's played a cookbook maven, a fashion magazine editor, and a British prime minister. Now, in Florence Foster Jenkins, she plays a real-life diva, albeit one who couldn't sing.

That doesn't seem to have fazed Jenkins and, of course, it doesn't fluster Streep. Coq au vin, Paris fashion week, the Falklands War, Mozart — she can handle them all, and at roughly the same pitch.

Pitch is a problem for Jenkins (no relation to this writer), whose artistic delusions are enabled by inherited wealth. Her audiences are carefully selected by her common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, and who else could it have possibly been?). A failed Shakespearian actor himself, and thus sensitive to ridicule, Bayfield excludes "mockers and scoffers."

Listeners are discreetly paid to attend Jenkins' soirees, either directly or via support for their own musical ventures. Conductor Arturo Toscanini is the most famous supplicant depicted in the movie, which occurs several decades into Jenkins' much-appreciated career as a music patron and her barely tolerated one as a coloratura soprano.

A version of this story was told, transplanted to France and with a pseudonymous title character, by last year's Marguerite. Both films boast winning and complex performances from their leading ladies, but have rather different sensibilities.

Marguerite was set in the anything-goes 1920s, when its off-key chanteuse could appeal to anarchists, both aesthetic and political. Florence Foster Jenkins is set precisely in 1944, a time of shared sacrifice and patriotic fervor, when Jenkins imagines her wounding voice might heal the troops. It's also the year in which she gave her one public concert — at Carnegie Hall, of course — and then died.

Jenkins' performances lived on, as a cult attraction hailed by the likes of David Bowie (ED: scroll to the bottom of this page) because she foolishly recorded a few tunes for 78 RPM records. It was technology that ripped Jenkins from her cocoon and threw her into the harsh glare of public awareness, which is actually a timely theme. (Of course, technology can repair as well as destroy. What if the inept diva had been born in the age of Autotune?)

Initially, director Stephen Frears' version of the saga is sweeter and more conventional than Marguerite. Jenkins' appalling singing seems the one off-note in a haute bourgeois idyll. "Ours is a very happy world," Bayfield tells his wife's new accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, whose silent astonishment at Jenkins' awfulness is very funny, if hardly subtle). There are no Dadaists or Marxists in Jenkins' circle, whose wackiest member is a brassy blonde (Nina Arianda) straight out of Hollywood's 1940s.

Yet Jenkins' universe is less splendid than Bayfield pretends, and not because he spends his nights with another woman (Rebecca Ferguson, in an underwritten role). Jenkins was a piano prodigy and teacher who became destitute for a time after suffering an arm injury. There are other health issues as well, which add an unexpected poignance to the tale.

Those furs, feathers, and wigs Jenkins wears are not simply evidence of her devotion to make-believe. They cloak a shocking frailness.

Frail isn't what Streep does best, and there are moments — such as when Jenkins shushes Bayfield's bedtime recitation of Keats — when the actress turns her character into an iron lady. But Florence Foster Jenkins is ultimately a tale of vulnerability, and a tin ear is the least of it.

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