All of us depend for our self-esteem and happiness on the loyalty, encouragement and the occasional mild falsehoods of our friends. In those things that matter most to us – playing a musical instrument, driving a car, looking good, never ageing, public speaking, acting, singing, dancing, dressing, writing, cooking, perhaps even performing stand-up comedy – we’re probably neither as good nor as bad as we believe we are, or fear we are. ‘You were absolutely marvellous, darling,’ we say to our acting friends when we go round to their dressing rooms at the end of a show. How fortunate that we neither hear what our friends really think, nor they what we really think, even if our praise is more or less sincere.
Of course, our feelings also make the truth what it is. Attitude influences our perception and judgement. ‘I love it if it’s Lacroix,’ says Edina Monsoon in Absolutely Fabulous. It doesn’t matter what it looks like.
But sometimes all the attitude in the world won’t make things right. Kind, well-meaning, gracious, and well-heeled society hostess Florence Foster Jenkins never hit the right notes, however much she believed she had, but her loving, loyal friends supported her delusion (possibly caused by damage to her own hearing by syphilis) that she sang as accurately, musically and beautifully as any of the world’s greatest divas. Indeed, so kind were her closest friends that they bought every copy of the New York Times to avoid her seeing the savagely truthful review of her Carnegie Hall concert. All other critics were bought.
Florence Foster Jenkins, the film, is a touching account of the triumph of kindness, love and loyalty over truth, and the courage of Florence Foster Jenkins herself, who lived a long life despite the syphilis her abandoned first husband gave her on their wedding night. She was kind, generous and loved music above all else. The illusion that she sang well harmed no one, and though we laugh at her as well as with her, her life contained joy.
That’s not to say that we must always be untruthful. Unsparing truth is a necessity when harm is being done, when strutting arrogance must be brought low or hypocrisy revealed, but gentle untruths do no harm, especially if it encourages improvement rather than discouraging effort.
Meryl Streep is magnificent as Florence and she manages to sing very badly very well, note perfect at Florence Foster Jenkins’ imperfect notes. Hugh Grant is touching, too, as her failed actor, devoted, grateful second ‘husband’. Simon Helberg, playing Cosmé McMoon, her half-lucky young accompanist, is superbly eccentric and lovable, and he almost steals the show.
The arrogant always deserve the truth, the lovingly deluded deserve consideration. Dear friends, bear that in mind when you’re weighing up my own pretensions.