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-30s. 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 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.

Review: ‘Profile’ (2021), starring Valene Kane and Shazad Latif

May 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Valene Kane in “Profile” (Photo courtesy of Bazelevs and Focus Features)

“Profile” (2021)

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

Some language in Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in London and in Syria, in 2014, the dramatic film “Profile” features a cast of white and Middle Eastern characters (with one black person) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A British journalist creates an online persona for a news exposé on how jihadist terrorists in Syria recruit young Western women to become members of their ISIS militant groups, and the journalist gets emotionally involved with the man who is the focus of her investigation. 

Culture Audience: “Profile” will appeal primarily to people interested in a story that intersects between investigative journalism and online seduction.

Valene Kane and Shazad Latif in “Profile” (Photo courtesy of Bazelevs and Focus Features)

Years ago, NBC’s news investigation series “Dateline” had a segment called “To Catch a Predator,” which was about arresting sexual predators who use the Internet to target children. The suspenseful dramatic film “Profile” could have been subtitled “To Catch a Terrorist Predator,” since the movie depicts an investigation into how male ISIS terrorists in Syria lure Western teenage girls and young women into doing their bidding. The story in “Profile,” directed by Timur Bekmambetov, takes place over several weeks in 2014. And it’s a mostly well-paced thriller that’s not just about the investigation but it’s also about the dangers of creating a fake online persona and letting it take over your real life.

The “Profile” screenplay was written by Timur Bekmambetov, Britt Poulton and Olga Kharina. It probably helped to have women as two-thirds of this movie’s screenwriting team, since the protagonist in “Profile” is a female journalist who has to be written and portrayed as believable, in order for viewers to understand some of the decisions that she makes. “Profile” is based on the non-fiction book “In the Skin of a Jihadist” by a French journalist with the alias Anna Erelle, who has 24-hour security protection because of what she uncovered during her investigation.

In “Profile,” London-based freelance journalist Amy Whittaker (played by Valene Kane) has gotten an investigative assignment that she’s pitched to an unnamed TV network. Amy wants to find out how hundreds of young Western women and girls (some as young as 12 to 14 years old), who were usually raised as Christians, have radically changed their lives to convert to Islam, move to Syria, and live as extreme jihadists for ISIS. In order to expose the grooming process, Amy has decided that she will create a fake online profile and pretend to be a young woman who will be “bait” for one of the male jihadists.

At the beginning of the story, Amy is under a lot of stress because she’s overdue on her rent, and her assignment editor Vick (played by Christine Adams) is pressuring Amy to wrap up the investigation so that the TV network can have the story by the expected deadline. Amy creates a fake online persona named Melody Nelson, with her profile avatar as Snow White wearing a hijab and holding a lollipop. In real life, Amy is in her 30s, but she decides that her alter ego Melody will be 19 years old. Amy was originally going to make Melody 25 years old, but her research found that the terrorists prefer to lure teenage girls into their jihadist lifestyles.

Soon after Amy “likes” a jihadist ideology video that’s posted on social media, she is contacted by a terrorist in Syria named Abu Bilel Al-Britani (played by Shazad Latif), who likes to be called Bilel. And their “courtship” begins. Bilel, who is in his late 20s or early 30s, was born and raised in London, but he grew to hate the United Kingdom and other Western countries. As an adult, he moved to Syria, where he has become a middle-ranking leader of a group of terrorists.

Bilel (whose online avatar is a snarling lion) is charming and overly flattering with Melody. Amy portrays Melody as a vulnerable and lonely orphaned teenager in East London who has converted to Islam because she became disillusioned with Christian beliefs. As Melody, Amy pretends to be in awe of Bilel and comes across as someone who enthusiastically shares his beliefs that his ISIS activities are for a good cause. When she asks Bilel what his job is, he doesn’t hesitate to proudly tell her: “Killing people.”

Amy is somewhat caught off-guard when Bilel immediately begins trying to sell Melody on the idea that her life is an overpriced rut in England and that she’s better off being in Syria, where he says that she will be treated like a queen. Soon after they start messaging each other online, Bilel tells Melody that Syria is a great place to live. And he doesn’t waste time in insisting that they take their conversations to video chats on Skype.

And so, there’s an extended sequence of Amy quickly getting a crash course on how to give the appearance of being the perfect naïve target for an ISIS predator. Amy uses YouTube for makeup tutorials to apply makeup that will make her look younger and for instructions on strict Muslim traditions, such as wearing a jihab and gender rules. She also goes on YouTube and other social media to see first-hand accounts of teenage girls in the United States and Europe who were seduced into moving to the Middle East to become wives and concubines of jihadist terrorists and ended up becoming sex slaves.

One teenager’s story particularly touches Amy: Taylor Conger (played by Eloise Thomas) was a 14-year-old British loner who chronicled her life on YouTube. At some point, Taylor decided to upend her life, moved to Syria, and became an ISIS militant and the wife of a jihadist. What happens to Taylor is detailed later in the movie. As part of Amy’s research from social media videos that were made by radicalized Western teens, Melody uses some of the same words in her conversations with Bilel to explain why she’s seeking a big change in her isolated and depressing life.

During this investigation, Amy has been making plans to move in with her boyfriend Matt (played by Morgan Watkins), who’s aware that Amy is investigating an ISIS terrorist by creating a fake online persona. Matt finds a place that he likes and shows it to Amy during a video chat, but Amy prefers another home that they found because it has a garden for her dog Sparky. They eventually settle on the place that’s Amy’s first choice.

Amy also has an energetic and somewhat nosy friend named Kathy Pallary (played by Emma Cater), who is always trying to get homebody Amy to do things like go shopping with her or have dinner with her. Amy has confided in Kathy about her investigation. And you know that that means: Kathy wants to eventually see what Amy has uncovered.

The TV network has offered information technology (IT) assistance to Amy in her investigation. And so, an IT employee named Lou Kabir (played by Amir Rahimzadeh), who works for the TV network, is introduced to Amy through Skype. He coaches her on how to navigate the fake online accounts she’s created so that she can simultaneously use her real online accounts, in case she needs to switch back and forth with ease.

During Lou’s first online meeting with Amy, he mentions offhand that his mother is from Syria. After their conversation, Amy expresses concerns to Vick about Lou’s ethnicity and wonders out loud if Lou might tell his mother about the investigation and what might happen if Lou’s mother knows a terrorist. Vick, who says that Lou’s mother has lived in England for decades, admonishes Amy for being paranoid and racist. And it actually is very hypocritical for Amy to think this way, because she’s the one who’s been indiscreet about the investigation, having already told Matt and Kathy about it.

When Melody and Bilel meet each other for the first time, Amy has to pretend to be someone who’s attracted enough to Bilel to easily fall in love with him. She acts shy, deferential and coquettish. She tells Bilel that she’s 19. And when he asks her if she’s a virgin, she says yes. Amy secretly video records the Skype conversations that she has with Bilel.

The rest of the movie is a psychological back-and-forth over who’s really doing the more successful con game: the terrorist or the journalist? Because most of the movie consists of Skype conversations and messaging on social media, “Profile” keeps a lot of the suspense going with plot contrivances, such as Matt and Kathy unknowingly interrupting Amy when she’s on Skype chats with Bilel. Amy usually has to ignore their messages when she’s with Bilel. And eventually, Amy gets so caught up in the investigation that it starts to take a toll on her relationship with Matt.

Meanwhile, Vick’s patience starts to wear thin, as Amy keeps delaying the end of the investigation because Amy thinks she can find information that can not only expose the Bilel’s recruitment tactics but also find a way that he can be captured. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch for Amy to suddenly start thinking that she can be like an MI6 operative, but a lot of investigative journalists can develop grandiose and ambitious goals when they get very caught up in their investigations.

Bilel initially comes across as very confident and assertive, but he eventually shows a vulnerable side to Melody when he opens up to her about his troubled family history. It’s a turning point in their relationship, because it triggers Amy to reveal to Bilel that she has her own struggles with a family tragedy that still haunts her. Telling Bilel her big family secret is a crack in her façade, because viewers will get the impression that although Amy told this story as Melody, the story is really what happened to Amy.

Viewers will have to suspend some disbelief in a few areas of the movie. For example, Bilel is paranoid about being exposed by journalists and government spies. And yet, he’s all over social media bragging about his misdeeds, without any attempts to hide his face and disguise his voice. Bilel also never does a Google search on any photos of Melody. Because if he did, he would find out that she looks exactly like a London journalist named Amy Whittaker who’s on social media.

However, Bilel isn’t a complete fool. Amy never really looks as young as 19, and Bilel is suspicious of how old Melody really is. Eventually, he confronts Melody and demands that she tell him what her real age is. Amy has to decide if she’s going to stick with the lie or confess something that’s more believable.

Amy’s undercover work starts to spill over into her real life. When she sees a report that ISIS terrorists have co-opted the hand gesture of pointing an index finger upright (the way some people indicate the number one), Amy gets paranoid when she sees a social media photo of Kathy making the same gesture. For a brief moment, Amy wonders if Kathy is a secret terrorist until Kathy explains that she made the gesture as that it was one more day until her celebration of the upcoming holiday season.

Amy also starts to blur the lines between her professional and personal lives when she takes her investigation beyond what she’s supposed to do. During a video chat, Bilel confided in Melody about how one of his favorite childhood memories was going to a London sweetshop owned by a fellow Syrian. Bilel tells her that it’s one of his few happy memories of London.

One day, Amy (disguised as Melody) surprises Bilel by doing their next Skype chat from that same London sweetshop. She gives a video tour of the shop so that it can bring back some happy memories for him. Although this might seem like a shrewd gesture to further endear herself to Bilel, it’s actually a very risky thing to do because no one should be seeing Amy out in public in her undercover disguise. What if someone who knew Amy walked into that shop and recognized her? (Stranger things have happened.) Her cover would be blown.

It’s during this video chat that something major happens in the story that reveals that Amy hasn’t been able to keep an emotional distance from Bilel during this investigation. The result of this video chat also brings up journalistic ethical dilemmas that can happen when journalists work undercover and encounter things that they did not expect. Amy does indeed go down a proverbial “rabbit hole” in her obsession to get a bigger story, but what will it cost her?

The believable performances of Kane and Latif make “Profile” a watchable film overall. Where the movie falters a bit is during the middle part of the story, which drags a little with some cutesy courtship footage, such as Bilel and Melody cooking curry during one of their Skype chats. And there are many instances during their Skype chats when someone in Amy’s real life interrupts and she has to abruptly disconnect from her call with Bilel. Bilel doesn’t get suspicious though (even though he should) because Amy (as Melody) always comes up with an excuse that he automatically believes.

In “Profile,” the terror of living in war-torn Syria is often a backdrop and not at the forefront—and deliberately so, because Bilel wants to paint a rosy picture of Syria, in order to lure Melody there. A bomb might go off while Bilel is outside, but if it does, he will quickly disconnect from the call. Likewise, he doesn’t show Melody any part of his murderous acts and other violence that he commits as a terrorist.

It’s an example of how people who create fake personas online only show what they want to show. If viewers are willing to tolerate seeing a movie about catching a terrorist that involves a lot of footage of computer screens, then “Profile” should hold people’s interest with this intriguing story. Beyond what’s on the computer screens, the movie skillfully offers a metaphorical blank canvas where viewers can project their opinions on how they feel about investigative journalism, online relationshps and tactics used to fight terrorism.

Focus Features released “Profile” in U.S. cinemas on May 14, 2021.

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