Review: ‘Falling for Figaro’ fails to hit the high (or even so-so) notes

Two women practice opera in the movie “Falling for Figaro.”
Joanna Lumley, left, and Danielle Macdonald in the movie “Falling for Figaro.”
(IFC Films)

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It’s hard to fall for “Falling for Figaro.” This well-meaning but strained comedy, directed by Ben Lewin (“The Sessions”) from a formulaic script he wrote with Allen Palmer, follows an oft-trod movie theme: You can achieve your wildest dreams, whatever the obstacles, if you just take a risk and never give up. Were it only that easy.

In the case of Millie Cantwell (Danielle Macdonald), an affluent London fund manager who turns down a major promotion to become an opera singer, she’s able to follow her bliss mainly because she has the money — apparently unlimited amounts — to finance a year living in the Scottish Highlands to study at inflated rates with the monstrously unpleasant, onetime opera diva Meghan Geoffrey-Bishop (Joanna Lumley).


Millie may weep watching operas and have a passable singing voice, but her trajectory from starry-eyed wannabe to skilled competitor requires as much of a leap of faith from the audience as it does from Millie herself. This is especially true since Meghan’s dubious teaching methods, which range from cruelly berating her students to choking them, don’t seem to explain or connect to Millie’s vocal improvement; Meghan’s more of a broad device for conflict and laughs (of which there are few) than an authentic engine.

The movie is also notable for featuring not just one but two unconvincing romantic dynamics. There’s little chemistry between Millie and her pony-tailed boyfriend and co-worker, Charlie (Shazad Latif), whom she summarily leaves behind to study in scenic Scotland. We know he’s not a long-termer from the start when he conks out on an enthralled Millie’s shoulder during a live opera performance.

Then there’s the skittish and initially jealous Max (Hugh Skinner), a local handyman, cook and, until Millie, the nominally retired Meghan’s only student. His goal, like Millie’s, is to win the coveted upcoming “Singer of Renown” contest, the training for which throws the two aspiring young vocalists together and lights an amorous spark. But, like much else here, it’s more perfunctory than transporting.

Macdonald (“Patti Cakes,” “Dumplin’”) lacks the requisite sparkle and pluck here to keep us squarely on her side; she comes off more entitled than earnest. Skinner is far more winning and sympathetic in his underdog role, while Lumley, despite her brash efforts, is not well-served by her underdeveloped part. Gary Lewis (so great as the dad in “Billy Elliot”) brings some rural charm to Ramsay, the proprietor of the pub-hotel where Millie ensconces for her year in Scotland.

One can’t, however, fault the soaring music, which features a kind of opera’s greatest hits from the likes of Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Donizetti and others. The virtuoso voices of Australian opera performers Stacey Alleaume and Nathan Lay are effectively dubbed in for, respectively, Macdonald and Skinner.

'Falling for Figaro'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 1, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena