Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite living in 1940s New York City, possesses great musical talent. She confesses to her astounded accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) that she was once a piano prodigy who performed at the White House at the age of eight, but that she can no longer play due to her atrophied left hand. The indefatigable artiste has instead turned to singing as a way to quell her thirst for music, and while most people with a voice like hers do not sing in public, either tone deafness or fanatical enthusiasm has rendered her oblivious to her own glass-breaking timbre. Her impeccably mannered husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), is desperate to keep her ignorant of this truth; luckily for both of them, the New York press are willing to play along with the deception. Meanwhile, musical "colleagues" like Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) and Maestro Carlo Edwards (David Haig), the latter the assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and Jenkins' vocal coach, appreciate how generous of a patron to the arts she is. They congratulate her on her upcoming recitals and send their regrets that, unfortunately, they'll be away and cannot attend. They smile broadly and praise her voice for its...authenticity.
However, it turns out that this pigeon-breasted society grande dame has a past. Her deceased first husband was "a human alley cat," as she bitterly recounts to a visiting doctor alarmed at the syphilis lesions on her back. Jenkins isn't a product of our current age of bold self-disclosure, and so instead of trumpeting details of what she's endured to anyone who will listen, she simply soldiers on in her genteel world of finger sandwiches and ladies' clubs. The façade only cracks when a knife dropped carelessly to the floor triggers tears.
As with Ricki and the Flash, Meryl Streep is once again playing a self-deluded musician; this time around, it's one who prefers frilly matron frocks and pearls to rock-star leathers. Streep is an excellent singer in real life, but here she must take on the difficult task of putting that talent aside in order to intentionally sing poorly. She proves up to the vocal challenge, wavering her explosive and gasping notes in the exact same manner in which Florence Foster Jenkins did (recordings survive of her remarkable voice). It's impossible not to snicker as she commands the stage at Carnegie Hall, resplendent in ludicrously spangled diva gowns, and mangles Mozart's "Queen of the Night" aria into what sounds like a dog vigorously attacking a squeaky toy. But it's also impossible not to applaud her spirit.
Is Florence Foster Jenkins a tragic figure? A comical one? Inspirational? Delusional? She is all of those things, and the triumph of director Stephen Frears' portrait of the performer, who sadly hit the wall of her own talent long before her passion ran dry, is that it never chooses one note to play, or one pat answer to sum up the ultimate meaning of her career. Her music may torture audiences and she may live a quietly tortured life, but she's no tortured artist. Even in the shadow of chronic illness and possible death, her love of music inspires her, and that love will linger for movie audiences after the lights come up. Florence Foster Jenkins is vastly more successful as a work of art than anything Jenkins ever sang, but it's triumphant and joyous heart comes from the unforgettable muse at its core.