Friday, March 07, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day


Dismissed from yet another governess job, Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is no longer considered fit for assignments from the employment office. Without even two pence to her name, this drab vicar's daughter is nothing if not industrious in pre-World War II London. Miss Pettigrew swipes the card of club singer Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), who seeks a social secretary, and allows herself to be mistaken for the woman who previously assisted Carole Lombard.

Like many pretty young women, Delysia aspires to be an actress, and she's not above juggling three men to make her dream a reality. She is in crisis mode when Miss Pettigrew rings her bell. Theater producer's son Phil Goldman (Tom Payne), who is almost ready to cast the lead role in a West End play, is still in bed from the previous night's persuasion. Nick (Mark Strong), the club owner whose penthouse Delysia is staying in, is on his way home. Miss Pettigrew deftly manages the situation, earning Delysia's immediate trust and a request to help save her from herself for the day.

Also in the picture is Delysia's piano player Michael (Lee Pace), who has just been released from prison. He loves her but wants a commitment. Michael asks Delysia to marry him, a choice she will have little time to ponder since he has two tickets for a boat that departs for New York the next morning.

Further complicating the scenario in MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY is the duplicitous Edythe Dubarry (Shirley Henderson). She recognizes Miss Pettigrew from the soup kitchen and is willing to reveal her true identity unless she can repair Edythe's broken engagement to lingerie designer Joe (CiarĂ¡n Hinds).

That's a lot of set-up for a farce that is otherwise as careful in rationing plot details and character introductions as a down-on-their-luck resident of 1939 England would be with the staples of life. Director Bharat Nalluri can be slack in pacing the story's wind-up and unraveling. Shot in widescreen, all the better to appreciate the swanky art deco sets, MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY can feel static, like a stage play brought to the screen despite its origin as a Winifred Watson novel, but the wonderful lead actresses provide the momentum that the composition and editing fail to provide.

McDormand's Miss Pettigrew is the moral outsider plunked into debauched high society, yet she plays her not as a scold or judge but as a compassionate witness and adviser. This characteristic permits her to be funnier as she rolls along with every eyebrow-raising development. Still, McDormand gives regular reminders of the bittersweet nature of Miss Pettigrew's plight. After all, this is a woman desperate enough to eat the cucumber slices placed over her eyes during a facial and who hungrily eyes a half-eaten apple on the train station floor. As written, Miss Pettigrew is not a three-dimensional character, but McDormand's firm presence and subtle emoting fill in the gaps.

As a sweet ditz Adams receives the juicier part and savors every bit of it. Delysia's manner is highly affected, as if she believes she lives in a screwball comedy. She has a lot of fun playing up Delysia's perception of how she thinks men want her to behave, including a slightly naughty side absent in Adams' pure-hearted previous roles. She delivers a bright, bouncy performance that makes one wish a producer would pair Adams, who radiates timeless movie star qualities, and George Clooney for a modern screwball picture.

Old Hollywood glamour and filmmaking sensibilities are resurrected in this slight but appealing comedy. The sets, period fashions, and soundtrack standards in MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY add old-fashioned elegance and dazzle. The film as a whole is less than the sum of its parts. Despite its pacing weaknesses and thin characterization, it builds to an unexpectedly satisfying conclusion. The final scenes are completely predictable, but it's a testament to McDormand and Adams that nothing less than Hollywood endings are desired for these charming ladies.

Grade: B-

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:17 PM

    Such a great movie! No horrible language, sex scenes or violence. I left the theatre feeling happy!!