I went into Falling for Figaro hoping to be entertained, and I was, royally. It’s packed with music, romance and delicious barbs as only Joanna Lumley can snarl them out. However, I wasn’t expecting to be so moved.
That’s partly thanks to Joanna Lumley herself. As Meghan Geoffrey-Bishop, an opera diva fallen on hard times, she’s a gorgeous dragon. A distilled nightmare of every teacher you forgot to practise your scales for. Yet, Lumley also highlights the joy at the heart of the story.
Millie Cantwell (Australia’s Danielle Macdonald) is a high-flying London fund manager. But more than her career she loves opera. The opening shows us why. We see Millie watching a dainty staging of Gounod’s musicalised Romeo and Juliet. It doesn’t matter that her boyfriend (Shazad Latif) is dozing on her shoulder. Millie is in bliss. Her face invites us to share her delight, both in the soaring soprano voice and its expression of youthful hope.
Jaded former opera star
Soon Millie is giving up everything to study singing, chasing quick success with a jaded former opera star (Lumley) in remote Scotland. Here she meets her teacher’s only other student, Max, played by openly-gay actor Hugh Skinner. Skinner creates a beautiful character, faltering but determined. Max is clearly a trauma survivor who’s found a haven in the gruff nurture of his musical instructress. The more they wrangle the more you know he adores her.
At first, Max tries to sabotage newcomer Millie, but she convinces him she’s as desperate to sing as he is. Before you know it, he’s lending her textbooks and coaching her on the side. Millie can’t help but be drawn to his uptight sweetness. This naturally complicates things for Millie, still firmly attached to the nice-enough guy she’s already got back in London.
The love-triangle dilemma may be a cliché, but Macdonald’s emotional honesty brings it to vivid life. She’s charming as Millie, both vulnerable and steel-tough in standing up for what she wants for herself.
And she’s got an excellent script, one that freshens up romantic comedy tropes so you can enjoy them anew, and with enough surprises to keep you guessing until the end. There’s also plenty of deadpan wit from a gaggle of Scottish locals, led by publican Gary Lewis.
Gay opera gene?
The film looks great and sounds even better. Not surprising — our own Opera Australia furnishes much of the soundtrack. They’ve chosen voices so attractive that, when I saw the preview with a group of men friends, even guys who’d never listened to opera wanted to hear more. (Maybe there is a gay opera gene?)
We get a whole chocolate box of opera’s hit tunes, all thoroughly enmeshed with the story. Major plot turns hinge on singing itself, and the film is quite realistic about the tedious slog it can take to train a voice. The competition sequences sizzle. We see the nerves of iron you need to perform the vocal equivalent of a trapeze act. Also how easily it can go wrong. It’s devastating when a handsome hunk cracks at the climax of the Toreador song from Carmen.
And holding it all together is Joanna Lumley’s diva. Bitter about her own life, she nevertheless knows the power of art to heal. For underneath her thunder beats the strongest of mother hearts.
“I can’t lie to Max. Can you?” she asks Millie at one point, giving the very definition of love. I won’t soon forget the way she quietly insists a shattered Max can and must go on and sing. Escorting him to the stage she looks like a lioness with her cub.
The message of the film is simple. Singing is joy, and joy is the only answer to life’s pain. But it’s a joy we have to fight for.
A big thanks to New Farm Cinemas for an advanced screening of Falling for Figaro especially for me to review.
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