Florence Taylor Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is a wealthy heiress in New York 1944. Florence lives for music and is allowed to indulge her passion by her devoted husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant).
The pair participate in elite evening shows, where Florence will appear and act the diva but never actually sing. All is well, the couple are happy with their various “arrangements” and eccentricities and life is good, albeit the war is dragging on.
Florence however is determined to take the next step and sing for her devoted audience and share her passion with the world. To this end a high end NY Opera voice coach is engaged but there is a need for a pianist, enter “Cosme McMoon” (Simon Helberg), willing and eager to earn $150 a week.
However McMoon is entering into a Faustian pact, as he finds to his cost during the first singing lesson. Florence’s passion ignores the unequivocal fact she cannot sing, cannot sing at all. In fact cats being strangled runs her voice a close second.
Realising Bayfield is merely indulging this conceit, McMoon enters this inner bubble, where Florence is treated as a great singer and audiences are bought off to ensure performances run smoothly.
Following a “successful” recital Florence sets her sights higher, Carnegie hall, she will sing to entertain the troops and high society.
The film has largely been billed as a comedy and there are many comedic moments but there is a powerful theme hiding within, if you can stay with the story . The film does does flag towards the middle section as listening to Florence sing is excruciating but what develops is a tender story, that is genuinely moving.
Of course none of this would work with most actresses, but Streep manages to find the real human being within. There are some later scenes with great pathos, notably the piano recital Florence and McMoon tentatively play together. Florence moves from a figure of caricature to a real living breathing “if you prick me do I not bleed” human being, quite an achievement for an actress but bread and butter for Streep.
Hugh Grant plays his usual self albeit older and wiser but Helberg in a major role, really nails not only the comedic aspects with eyes rolling and facial ticks registering every miscued high note but also the change in tone as the film progresses.
Of course this is terribly elitist, the couple are only ever able to indulge their whims due to money. Bayfield’s motivations are at best muddled and arguably influenced by money but clearly there was affection there, if the film is to be believed.
Ultimately this is a film about vulnerable, flawed, eccentric but eventually relatable characters. After all Florence only wanted to share her great talent with the world, the fact she had no singing talent was irrelevant. Yet her recordings are the most downloaded Carnegie archive artists ever, which speaks volumes.
Not the film you will be expecting but all the better for that, keep watching past the mid point and a rewarding experience is there to be found.
Uplifting and ultimately rewarding, not played for laughs but still finding humour in the sadness that pervades the film, if you care to peek behind the façade.