According to her dour, navy-suited employers in an old-school London financial institute, young American Millie Cantwell is the most prodigiously gifted fund manager in many a moon: a veritable supernova in her field, destined for great and profitable things. This is doubtless a wonderful thing to hear if you truly want to be a fund manager. If, like Millie, your most cherished ambition is to be an opera singer, it feels more like your head ruthlessly selling out your heart, leaving your voice stranded somewhere in the exchange. As for which ultimately wins out, expect no surprises in “Falling for Figaro,” a corny, cute-enough carpe diem comedy, in which it’s a lovable ensemble — led by Danielle Macdonald, and spiked by a deliciously imperious Joanna Lumley — that brings the grace notes to a pretty standard-issue script.
An Industry Selects offering at Toronto last year, now getting a quiet multiplatform release via IFC Films in the U.S., “Falling for Figaro” finds “The Sessions” director Ben Lewin on livelier form than his intervening pair of helmer-for-hire projects “The Catcher Was a Spy” and “Please Stand By.” This British-American-Australian production is likeliest to hit its stride on streaming. In the U.K., where it’s set, the gray-pound audience may give it brighter theatrical prospects.
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For Australian thesp Macdonald, who has been cast to variable effect since breaking out in the 2017 Sundance favorite “Patti Cake$,” this very different musical project continues to prove her unaffected warmth as a performer in a variety of surroundings. It’s quite a leap, after all, from grimy New Jersey rapping to trilling (or ably lip-synching, rather) her way through “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in a sequined evening gown. We first see her gazing rapt at a soprano in full flight at London’s Royal Opera House. That her boyfriend and co-worker Charlie (Shazad Latif) is napping on her shoulder is the film’s first unsubtle clue that they might not be soulmates.
He’s certainly not on her wavelength when she announces, right after being handed a lofty promotion, that she intends to quit her finance job, and see where her vocal cords take her. The amateur opera competition Singer of Renown is several months away, and she wants to give it her best shot. She can’t do it alone, however, which is where crotchety, hard-to-please voice coach Meghan Geoffrey-Bishop (Lumley) comes in. Based in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, she doesn’t come cheap, and has a reputation for tormenting her students to the point of breakdown, but she allegedly gets results.
And so Millie heads north for a crash course in Callas and country living, weathering the haughty demands of Meghan and the earthy skepticism of local landlord Ramsey (Gary Lewis) to find her own voice. Will she succeed? Will her initial rivalry with Meghan’s other protégé, awkwardly adorable Max (a delightful Hugh Skinner), blossom into something closer? Have a guess. Needless to say, while Millie professes to love opera because she’s “drawn to the irresistible tragedy of it all,” “Falling for Figaro” isn’t on anything like the same trajectory.
It’s a good thing Macdonald is so grounded and engaging, because Millie’s plight isn’t especially high-stakes, and only modestly sympathetic. Leaving behind a lavishly paid white-collar career to spend a small fortune on singing tuition for a shot at the spotlight isn’t the most classic of stars-in-their-eyes narratives. It’s a little disappointing that Lewin’s film does nothing to subvert the latter-day perception of opera as an art for the elite.
Still, if you’re going to lean into the poshness of it all, who better than Lumley to take the grande dame role? With lacquered hair and a perennial expression of frozen disdain, she’s a scream as she terrorizes her minions with barked orders and hissed insults: “The future for you is a typical cruise ship with regular burials at sea,” she admonishes Millie early on, after one perfectly proficient aria. That anyone might have the courage to continue singing after that cut-down is just one of this pleasantly dopey, easy-on-the-ear film’s many gentle implausibilities.
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A Fine Ensemble Sings the High Notes in a Corny, Amiable Opera Comedy