Review: ‘Falling for Figaro,’ starring Danielle Macdonald, Hugh Skinner and Joanna Lumley

October 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hugh Skinner and Danielle Macdonald in “Falling for Figaro” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Falling for Figaro” 

Directed by Ben Lewin

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Scotland and briefly in England, the romantic comedy/drama “Falling for Figaro” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with two people of Indian heritage and one black person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A successful fund manager, who is bored with her job and with her life, goes on a leave of absence to train as an opera singer, but she has conflicts with her singing instructor and the instructor’s longtime protégé.

Culture Audience: “Falling for Figaro” will appeal primarily to fans of co-star Joanna Lumley and to people who like lightweight but appealing romantic dramedies.

Joanna Lumley and Danielle Macdonald in “Falling for Figaro” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Falling for Figaro” hits all the predictable beats of a romantic comedy/drama about a woman who goes outside her comfort zone and ends up finding true love. Thanks to a charming performance from Danielle Macdonald, the movie is slightly better than the usual schmaltz. “Absolutely Fabulous” co-star Joanne Lumley, who has been typecast as portraying cranky battle-axes with an acerbic wit, does more of the same type of performance in “Falling for Figaro.” However, Lumley’s fans should enjoy how she embodies the role with such comedic commitment that viewers will wonder what foul and mean-spirited things will come out next from this character’s mouth.

Ben Lewin directed “Falling for Figaro” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Allen Palmer. The movie has the added benefit of being set in the world of opera competitions, which is a unique context for a romantic comedy/drama. But make no mistake: “Falling for Figaro” is utterly formulaic in its story arc and structure. A talented cast makes this movie mostly enjoyable to watch, because most viewers will know how this movie is going to end.

In “Falling for Figaro,” Macdonald portrays Millie Cantwell, an American living in an unnamed big city in England. She works at a corporate job as a fund manager. (Macdonald is actually Australian in real life, but her American accent is flawless.) Millie is a rising star at the company. And it’s not just because her boss happens to be her live-in boyfriend.

His name is Charlie (played by Shazad Latif), and he’s proud of Millie’s success as a fund manager and wants to promote her to a higher position. Millie (who’s in her early 30s) and Charlie (who’s in his mid-to-late 30s)—met when he interviewed her to work at the company. There are no flashbacks in this movie. The story begins when Millie and Charlie have already been living together for an unspecified period of time.

It’s kind of a tricky situation in this #MeToo era for a boss to be dating an employee. But somehow, Millie and Charlie have worked it out and are open about their personal relationship while keeping things professional at work. Early on in the movie, she jokingly says to him in private: “I’m going to make more money than you. You’re going to rue the day that you hired me.”

Even though Millie is on the fast track to a big promotion at her job, she’s actually bored and frustrated with her career choice. The first scene in the movie shows Millie and Charlie on a date together at an opera performance. Millie is enthralled and has a fantasy that she’s the one who’s up on stage as the star of the show. Meanwhile, Charlie could care less about opera. He falls asleep during the performance. You know where this is going, of course.

It doesn’t take long for Millie to confess to Charlie that she’s going to take a big risk in her life to pursue a longtime dream of hers: She wants to become a professional opera singer. And in order to do that, Millie is going to take a year off from her job to go through opera training. When she tells Charlie this surprising news that she wants to be an opera singer, his incredulous response is, “Like, in the shower?”

Once the shock wears off, Charlie sees that Millie is entirely serious and determined to achieve this goal. Millie gets some advice from an older co-worker named Patricia Hartley, who tells her that the fastest way to be discovered as an aspiring opera singer is to go on the TV talent contest called “Singer of Renown.”

Millie says to Patricia, “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life as a fund manager … Why shouldn’t I follow my heart?” Patricia doesn’t want to discourage Millie, but she expresses some skepticism about Millie trying to become an opera singer when many people start training in their childhood or teen years. Millie says defiantly in response to this skepticism, “Patricia, I’m not that old, and it is not too late. I’m willing to do this, with or without your help.”

Patricia recommends that Millie get her training from an opera instructor whom Patricia knows named Meghan Geoffrey-Bishop (played by Lumley), who is based in the Scottish Highlands small town of Drumbuie. Meghan is at an age when most people are retired, but she refuses to think of herself as too old to work. Patricia warns Millie about Meghan: “She’s a little unorthodox.” A more accurate description of Meghan is, “She’s a little crazy and very rude.”

Charlie thinks that Millie is making a mistake to pursue a career as an opera singer. However, Millie has already made up her mind. And so, off Millie goes to Scotland with big dreams, a lot of hope and the expected amount of fear that she might end up failing.

Drumbuie is the type of small town where the local pub/restaurant (The Filthy Pig) is the center of the townspeople’s social lives. The Filthy Pig’s bartender Ramsay Macfadyen (played by Gary Lewis), who’s about the same age as Meghan, is the type of friendly person who knows regular customers by their names. He’s attuned to what’s going on in most of the customers’ personal lives. (In other words, he’s nosy.) And in a case of “opposites attract,” it turns out that Ramsay and Meghan have a little bit of a romance going on, but they’re trying to keep it low-key.

One of the waiters at the Filthy Pig is named Max (played by Hugh Skinner), an occasionally sullen introvert in his mid-30. Max works at the Filthy Pig to supplement his income as he trains to become a professional opera singer. Up until Millie comes along, Max was the only student of Meghan, who is very choosy about which people she wants to train. Meghan is also like a mother figure to Max, whose background isn’t really explained except for a mention that his parents are no longer alive and he has no other family members.

Meghan acts like such a domineering mother to Max that viewers might think that at some point there might be a reveal in the story that she really is Max’s mother, but that doesn’t happen. Max is a live-in handyman on Meghan’s property, so she often treats him like a lowly servant too. It seems like the main reason why Max puts up with Meghan’s shoddy treatment is because he respects her as a vocal instructor and he has an emotional attachment to her because she’s the closest thing he’s got to having a family.

Millie’s audition for Meghan is an outright disaster. For her audition piece, Millie sings “Voi Che Sapete” from “The Marriage of Figaro.” She’s nervous and stumbles in her her vocal delivery because during the audition, Max has been working on some plumbing nearby, and the loud noise is very distracting. Not surprisingly, Meghan rips into Millie not just for her performance but also to personally insult Millie.

Meghan goes on a rant that includes saying haughtily to Millie, “I haven’t finished telling you how worthless you are!” Meghan warns Millie that if Millie becomes Meghan’s student, Meghan will make Millie’s life miserable. Millie is undeterred. And because Millie has no other immediate options, she practically begs Meghan to be her vocal instructor. Meghan is secretly impressed by Millie’s determination and reluctantly agrees to train Millie.

Meanwhile, Max is feeling a little jealous that Meghan has accepted a new student, when he was used to having Meghan all to himself. Max tries to make Millie feel inferior by telling her that he’s been training with Meghan for so long, he can help Millie with some vocal techniques. Millie declines his offer and seems a little insulted because she thinks Max is being condescending to her.

The way that Max takes the rejection indicates that he might be interested in Millie for more than professional reasons. He doesn’t seem too pleased when he finds out that Millie has a boyfriend back home. Millie describes Charlie as her “significant other.” Max’s response: “It doesn’t exactly sound like a love match.” Meanwhile, Meghan sees that there’s some friction between Max and Millie. And what does Meghan do? She suggests that Max and Millie work on a duet together.

Viewers can easily predict how the rest of the story is going to go from there. Max and Millie have their share of disagreements, but they also learn to respect each other’s talent. Charlie arrives for the inevitable surprise visit, as Max and Millie’s attraction to each other grows. Max and Millie end up competing against each other in the “Singer of Renown” contest. Thankfully, the outcome of that contest isn’t as predictable as most people might think it is.

There’s a “Singer of Renown” contestant named Rosa Patullo (played by Rebecca Benson), who might be the most talented singer, but she has confidence issues. Kind-hearted Millie befriends Rosa and helps her deal with these insecurities. Millie isn’t a complete angel in this story, because there are some infidelity issues that she gets herself into during the inevitable love triangle between herself, Charlie and Max.

The opera singing in the movie should delight opera fans and even people who aren’t opera fans but appreciate musical artistry. What isn’t so creative is how many of the supporting characters end up being unremarkable clichés. There’s a gaggle of Filthy Pig regulars who are entirely forgettable. And the movie skimps on a backstory for Millie. Viewers will learn nothing about how and why she ended up living in the United Kingdom and what kind of family background she has.

Max as a love interest is a little bit on the bland side, while Meghan can be a little too over-the-top with her cruel comments. Skinner and Lumley play those roles accordingly. And that’s why the main appeal of “Falling for Figaro” is with Millie’s character, thanks to Macdonald’s relatable and grounded performance in a movie that largely follows a fairytale formula. The direction of this movie is breezy and light, which is an interesting contrast to the heavy bombast of opera. “Falling for Figaro” is far from a groundbreaking romantic movie, but it’s a pleasant-enough diversion for people who want the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.

IFC Films released “Falling for Figaro” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 1, 2021.