The film Florence Jenkins is not a comedy, although it has comedic elements. It’s the story of a woman filled with romantic ideals and the finances to indulge them. A passionate philanthropist showering the 1940’s Manhattan classical music scene with gifts and grants, Florence wants to belong, to participate in ways far beyond her means. Not her monetary means. Her treasuries are overflowing. No, she longs to belong as a member of the artists’ circle, to be known, to be loved not for her money but as a celebrated operatic soprano. At last, in her waning years, she hopes to command the attention and praise she never received as a child nor as wife in her first marriage to a philandering yet fortuitously wealthy-now- deceased husband. Poor, wealthy Ms. Jenkins. She aspires to become one of the great sopranos in the exacting and starry heights of the opera world without a trace of talent or a wisp of capacity for self-scrutiny. She is a wealthy version of Mama Rose from the musical fable GYPSY (by the way, was Madame Rose’s talent real or imaginary?) and, even more so, DON QUIXOTE all rolled into one. And, like, Gypsy Rose Lee’s mom and Cervantes whose presence is everywhere felt throughout his early 17th century novel, Mrs. Foster Jenkins is a real, historical person. Quite a centerpiece for any movie; quite a role for any actress. And in this version, the actress is Meryl Streep offering a formidable incarnation of the complex and contradictory nature of dreamers and the tragedy of anyone who loses touch with reality. Ms. Streep gives an honest, exquisite performance.
The relationship to GYPSY notwithstanding, director Stephen Frears has chosen to emphasize the DON QUIXOTE aspects of the story, focusing on its “illusion version reality” dynamic. He gives the film a sense of balance by attending equally to the two men who support Florence Jenkins as he does to the woman herself. In that, the screenwriter Nicholas Martin brought his heroine to light in the same way Cervantes conveyed insights into his “knight of the woeful countenance” through the characters that interact with him. In FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, one of these persons is purposefully overindulgent, the other reluctant but ultimately resigned. And, as in Don Quixote, others in the fine supporting cast are simply cruel.
Hugh Grant plays Mrs. Jenkins boyfriends and platonic lover St. Clair Bayfield as the willing Sancho Panza with heartbreaking panache and Simon Helberg embodies the pianist / accompanist Cosmé McMoon with a kooky but nuanced performance that truly engages us as he transcends his disgust over Mrs. Jenkins performances and learns to love the woman despite her desperate games of make-believe. Streep, Grant and Helberg are all excellent. The sum total of the performances, period design and costumes (wonderful Production Design by Alan MacDonald and Costumes by Consolata Boyle), and overall direction makes this film well worthwhile even though, to be honest, the plot sags in energy from time to time.
In essence, the movie FLORENE FOSTER JENKINS is a love story with edge. It poses a question that certainly will benefit all who are willing to address it: What is the best relationship between Truth, Beauty and Love? There is, of course, no one-size-fits all balanced response to such a query, but this movie brings to mind Saint Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians: “So, faith, hope and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”