People may say I couldn't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing.
I first read about Florence Foster Jenkins in Stephen Pile's The Book of Heroic Failures - true stories of individuals who proved spectacularly unsuccessful in their chosen field of endeavour. Jenkins was logged under 'The Worst Singer', and the account of her performances was a great source of mirth to me as a teen. Word that another Stephen - Frears - had directed a film version of her story, with Meryl Streep as the aspiring diva, had me grinning instantly with anticipation.
Jenkins was a New York heiress and socialite, who treated her friends and acolytes to renditions of operatic arias, despite the fact that she possessed no singing ability whatsoever. Ten years' worth of X-Factor open auditions are a modern testament to the power of self-delusion, but Jenkins had no panel of judges to check her reality. In their place was a coterie of followers who praised her singing at every turn, not least because she was a generous patron of the arts throughout the city. Thus she recorded a number of records, eventually packing out Carnegie Hall, where she regaled astonished listeners with her uniquely dreadful vocal style.
Frears' version of her story is a tragi-comedy that makes the most of its ritzy setting - 1940s Manhattan. Meryl Streep has already proved her musical credentials in films such as Ricky and the Flash and (God help us) Mama Mia, but here she has to go one better - recreating Jenkins' singing voice by sailing close to the notes without ever actually landing on them and staying marginally off rhythm throughout. The exquisitely awful result is just one more facet of Streep's genius. Her portrayal of the deluded chanteuse, however, is also shot through with pathos, suggesting the depth of personal loss that lies behind the heiress' desire to sing. Jenkins may be absurd here, but she's no caricature.
Also delivering a nuanced performance is Hugh Grant as Jenkins' husband - a failed actor, who now lives to protect his wife from ridicule at her bizarre performances. The nature of his relationship with her is key to the film (is he leeching off his wealthy spouse, or acting out of genuine affection?) and ultimately provides it with its heart. Never has Grant's charm been put to better use, as he manoeuvres silkily to keep Jenkins' surreal musical world intact. At the piano is the singer's accompanist Cosme McMoon (real name), played with ill-concealed disbelief by The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg. Drawn into the plot of maintaining Jenkins' delusion, he provides us with the outsider's perspective, and his rehearsals with her, as he struggles to follow her erratic vocal delivery, are the film's comic high-points.
Ultimately, however, Florence Foster Jenkins surprised me by being much more touching than wildly comic. If we start off laughing at how ridiculous a figure she appears, by the end we have been drawn along with her hapless pianist into rooting for her.
Set aside the moral question of whether or not she should have been encouraged in the first place and you'll fall in love with Jenkins' preposterous operatic squawking. You may even agree with the account of her in Stephen Pile's book - her earnest efforts to entertain were genuinely, movingly heroic.