Falling for Figaro is one of those formulaic trifles that almost dares you not to refer to it as Madame Sousatzka (1988) meets The Cutting Edge (1992). There is never a point where it aims to surprise or even build up anticipation for the predictable plot beats. It seems to be quite willing to lull its audience to sleep with a serious of scenes that aren’t dramatic in the slightest. The whole affair feels impossibly sleepy and lacking in the pizzazz that is needed to reinvigorate a tired, overused narrative.
Ben Lewin and Allen Palmer’s screenplay is chock full of clichéd tropes and saccharine moments. It tells the story of Millie Cantwell (Danielle Macdonald), a perky young fund manager who dreams of becoming an opera diva. She feels like she is wasting away in a corporate setting and decides to give up her job in order to pursue her dreams. Her longtime boyfriend, Charlie (Shazad Latif), is shocked by her actions and tries to caution her against going overseas. She is told that she could study under the tutelage of the ornery Meghan Geoffrey-Bishop (Joanna Lumley), a former diva who has fallen on hard times. Cantwell travels all the way to Scotland to visit Geoffrey-Bishop and initially struggles to meet her tutor’s high expectations. She also clashes with Max (Hugh Skinner), who is Geoffrey-Bishop’s only other pupil. He resents the fact that she is taking attention away from him and worries that she will leave him in the dust. When they begin to fall in love, it takes both of them by surprise and complicates their plans for the future.
The film’s central issue is that all of the characters remain completely inert. At the beginning of the film, Cantwell is a nice, cheerful woman who is polite to everybody. She never appears to have any character flaws and that means that there is no reason for her to grow and evolve as she goes through training. Her relationship with Max is presumably meant to spark conflict, as she is asked to choose between her current boyfriend and her new paramour. Max’s resentment of her talent also seems like a source of tension in the first act, but it magically vanishes when he gets the hots for her. There is no question of whether they will end up together so the audience has nothing to root for. Their scenes of bonding are also frustratingly generic, as they eat a nice meal together and teach one another vocal warm-ups. Other than a scene in which the two engage in foreplay whilst listening to The Three Stooges, their romance is utterly devoid of any interest.
The blandness extends to almost everything else, as there is nothing particularly distinctive about the costume design or mise-en-scène. Most of the characters walk around in threads that could have been purchased from Kmart and their clothing choices never seem to reflect their personalities. Cantwell and Geoffrey-Bishop, who have very different temperaments, could have easily swapped costumes and it wouldn’t have many any difference. Lumley essentially plays an exaggerated caricature of a kooky old woman and her ensembles should have reflected that. Rather than wearing sweaters and smocks, she could have been sporting brightly coloured, midriff-baring halter tops that make her look out of place in a small Scottish town. The local tavern could have been given a bit more flair if there had been more knick-knacks dotted around the bar. Every room looks far too clean and sparsely decorated to believably stand in for locations that have been through quite a lot of wear and tear. They look like show rooms that have been haphazardly decorated with stock photographs and hermetically sealed props that don’t do much to establish the setting. All of this blandness adds up to an unconvincing portrait of a Scottish town that could have possessed real folksy charm.
Beyond its one dimensional, stereotypical portrayal of Scottish culture, the film fails to dig its teeth into the opera world. We don’t see much of the pomp and pageantry that is associated with the art form and never hear much about Cantwell’s artistic process. There are plenty of scenes in which Cantwell tells other characters about her passion for the art form but there is never a seen where we get to see the experience of performing from her perspective. We constantly view her from the perspective of audience members who are gazing adoringly at her. This means that we never get to look out at them and understand why opera stars get so nervous before a big show. When Cantwell is on stage singing, she is bathed in soft, golden light and looks like an ethereal angel. There is no room for doubts or fears and her total perfection makes her difficult to care about. If there had been one scene where Lewin took the reins and used camerawork to put us in Cantwell’s headspace, it would have been so much easier to cheer when she does succeed.
There is nothing terribly offensive about Falling for Figaro, but it would have been better if it were not so determinedly inoffensive and willing to play it safe. The paint by numbers plotting and cheap production values hamper a concept that could have been quite delightful – if put to good use. Lumley has better things to do with her time and so do the viewers. There are better light comedies out there and they won’t have the effect of putting you to sleep.
Falling for Figaro opens in US theatres and everywhere you rent movies October 1, 2021