Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses, of charming moments and cloying artificiality. This adaptation of the Winifred Watson novel boasts strong performances, but the story, set in late-30s London and featuring a bubble-brained young American actress (played by Amy Adams) and a frumpy middle-aged governess (Frances McDormand), isnt nearly as fun and frothy as it wants to be.

The year is 1939. Miss Guinevere Pettigrew (McDormand) lives hand to mouth in London, recently fired from her job as a governess. Desperate for work from her employment agency, she steals another womans assignment: social secretary for a visiting American actress (Adams) glamorously named Delysia Lafosse. When Miss Pettigrew arrives at Delysias flat, though, she discovers how out of place she feels around the actress and her high-society friends. But Delysia, who has several lovers but not much common sense, quickly recognizes that the down-to-earth Miss Pettigrew is the perfect woman to help keep her from making bad romantic and career decisions. The two women spend an eventful 24 hours together, where Delysia will find out if shes landed the lead role in a London musical and Miss Pettigrew finds love in a most unexpected place.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day has all the trappings of a distinguished, successful comedy. Beyond their considerable talents, Frances McDormand and Amy Adams have demonstrated an acute ability to play characters who bridge the gap between drama and humor. (For McDormand, it was her Oscar-winning role in Fargo, while for Adams, it was her breakthrough performance in Junebug, which garnered an Oscar nomination.) In addition, adapting Winifred Watsons novel are Oscar-nominated screenwriters David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), who both seem to gravitate to work that balances comedy and drama in equal measure.

But though the prestigious parts are in place, the film, directed by respected television helmer Bharat Nalluri (Tsunami: The Aftermath), is only sporadically enjoyable. Ultimately, the film is undone by some generic characterizations and a prevailing phoniness in its pre-war London setting. The two problems come together in Adamss portrayal of Delysia, a spoiled, ladder-climbing actress who could be the sweeter, more-talented cousin of Jean Hagens Lina Lamont character from Singin in the Rain. Adams uses the Betty-Boop register of her voice for Delysia, but she doesnt seem to hook into the humor of the character as deeply as she did when playing the blissfully nave princess of the gently satirical Enchanted. Her Delysia rarely transcends caricature, and although Adams has the right amount of girlish sex appeal and sunny innocence, the character is a collection of mannerisms and nothing more.

Furthermore, Nalluris vision of late-30s London is full of breezy nostalgia, and in its style the film attempts to recapture the glossy sophistication of Hollywood movies of the era. While theres nothing wrong with trying to bring back the verbal dexterity and elaborate hijinks of classic studio comedies, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day simply doesnt have the inspired invention of that golden age of grownup laughers. Instead, the film is only mildly funny with some of its humor feeling stilted. The production designers and costumers have no problem reproducing the eras elegance, but the writing isnt equal to the task.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day may aspire to be a fizzy, high-society comedy about two mismatched ladies, but it also wants to be a crowd-pleasing love story, a period drama, and a commentary on the place of women in a male-dominated society. To be sure, Nalluri is ambitious, but he and his screenwriters fail to integrate these different thematic strands. Instead of a finely woven tale that operates on many levels, the audience gets a sputtering film that has to regain its momentum each time it shifts gears.

Though the story elements havent been properly thought through, several of the performances are so satisfying that it almost makes you forgive the deficiencies elsewhere.

In some ways, Frances McDormands character is as narrowly conceived as Adamss. Miss Pettigrew is a little too perfectly designed to be the polar opposite of Delysia older, more reserved, practical, ordinary. But as she has throughout her career, McDormand makes an ordinary woman both human and interesting. Miss Pettigrews attempts to steer Delysia toward the one boyfriend who really loves her are largely uninteresting, but her budding romance with a gentlemanly fashion designer (played by Ciarn Hinds) offers McDormand her strongest moments.

As for Hinds, hes one of those terrifically underrated actors who keeps popping up in indelible small roles, most recently in Amazing Grace, Margot at the Wedding, and There Will Be Blood. With any luck, his charming, dashing turn as Miss Pettigrews potential love interest will only lead to larger film roles, should that be what he desires.

Credits

Running time: 100 minutes

Director: Bharat Nalluri
Production companies: Kudos Pictures, Keylight Entertainment
US distribution: Focus Features
Producers: Nellie Bellflower, Stephen Garrett
Executive producer: Paul Webster
Co-producer: Jane Frazer
Screenplay: David Magee, Simon Beaufoy (based on the novel by Winifred Watson)
Cinematography: John de Borman
Editor: Barney Pilling
Production design: Sarah Greenwood
Music: Paul Englishby

Cast

Frances McDorman (Miss Pettigrew)
Amy Adams (Delysia)
Lee Pace (Michael)
Ciarn Hinds (Joe)
Shirley Henderson (Edythe)
Mark Strong (Nick)
Tom Payne (Phil)