Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day

A lovely trio of Depression-era fashionistas.

A lovely trio of Depression-era fashionistas.

(Focus) Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Lee Pace, Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Payne, Mark Strong, Christina Cole, Stephanie Cole. Directed by Bharat Nalluri.

In these economic times we are all of us riding the thin line between success and poverty, with one push in either direction sending us skittering towards one or the other. While in some sense this is almost always generally true, in only one other era was this more the case than the one we live in now – the Great Depression.

Guinevere Pettigrew (McDormand) is a vicar’s daughter who works as a governess. Plain, socially awkward and somewhat plain-spoken, she finds herself dismissed from one position after another. After her latest dismissal, her agency declines to find another placement for her – ever. Desperate, knowing starvation and homelessness are awaiting her she impulsively steals a placement as a social secretary for a flighty and somewhat promiscuous actress by the unlikely name of Delysia Lafosse (Adams).

Adams, an American working in London as World War II looms, came to the UK as a lounge singer but hopes to find success enough in the West End to propel her to Hollywood. She has her sights set on a part in a new play produced by Phil Goldman (Payne) and is willing to do anything – and anyone – to get what she wants. Ditzy and disorganized, she lives in a swanky London flat that turns out to be the address of Nick Calderetti (Strong), the hot-headed nightclub owner she works for and is sleeping with. However, her heart belongs to Michael Pardew (Pace), a talented pianist who has just finished serving a term in jail for a “misunderstanding.”  

Miss Pettigrew is completely out of her element, but all the characteristics that made her unsuitable as a governess are just what the doctor ordered for Delysia. Conversely, Delysia is able to make the dowdy governess blossom with her knowledge of fashion, make-up and hair. The two are perfect for each other.

However, the world around them is spiraling out of control. The part that would make Delysia’s career is in danger of going to another actress, Charlotte Warren (C. Cole) but accepting that role would put an end to her relationship with Michael, who is returning to New York. Add to that the complication of Edythe Dubarry (Henderson), a fashion maven whose engagement to lingerie designer Joe Blomfield (Hinds) she wants Miss Pettigrew to rescue. However, Miss Pettigrew is attracted to the quiet, gallant Joe herself while Edythe begins to suspect the Miss Pettigrew isn’t who she says she is.

Based on the 1938 novel by Winifred Watson, the film rights had belonged to Universal since 1939 languishing there for nearly 70 years before finally getting made by Focus, the studio’s independent and art film arm. Director Nalluri takes the elements of a screwball comedy and adds a 21st century romantic comedy ethos to it. The results are neither fish nor fowl, but an odd amalgam of both, rendering a not-unpleasant effect.

McDormand, one of Hollywood’s most consistent leading ladies, is quite understated as the somewhat timid Pettigrew. Adams, who is blossoming into not only a fine actress but also a charismatic lead, is sensational. She takes a character that sleeps around and is something of a birdbrain and gives her humanity and charm. You wind up liking this girl even though in real life, you probably wouldn’t…unless she was Amy Adams, that is. She also gets to sing a song, “If I Didn’t Care” which just about brings down the house. Lee Pace, so good in TV’s “Pushing Daisies” is somewhat lost in his role. Better are Henderson and Hinds, character veterans who have richly earned reputations for solid performances, and they don’t disappoint here.

Screwball comedies, so popular in the 1930s, are a skill in and of themselves. When done properly, they are some of the best entertainment value there are. In all honesty, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day doesn’t really hold up with the best of that genre, but is sufficient enough that because they are so rarely made these days, its rating might be skewed up a bit because of it. With the economy rapidly mimicking that of the Great Depression, I wouldn’t be surprised if we begin to see a lot more of them in the coming years. That, in itself wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent screwball comedies are rare and this one is definitely that. Adams and McDormand are two of the best actresses in Hollywood, at the top of their games here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: 21st century audiences may find this a bit dated stylistically speaking.  

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all ages; almost no raunchiness to speak of, although the Delysia Lafosse character’s promiscuity is implied.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Miss Pettigrew’s father is revealed to be a minister. Actress McDormand’s father is also a minister.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with the author’s son, who gives some fascinating insight into how the movie came into being.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Inkheart

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