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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day tries mightily to capture a moment in the life of woman whose small world is spiraling out of control – and a nation on the precipice of World War II. The result is more froth than substance, although director Bharat Nalluri does present a lively London before the Blitz, and showcases some wonderful performances amid the glitz. Adopting a British accent and a priggish, deferential demeanor, Frances McDormand (Fargo, Laurel Canyon) brings an innate strength to Guinevere Pettigrew, a down-on-her-luck nanny who finds herself social secretary to the tasty Delysia LaFosse (Amy Adams), an American cabaret singer in need of strong moral guidance. An unrepentant gold digger, Delysia is a bubbly throwback to the screwball era, and Amy Adams (Enchanted) makes this sex kitten alternately coquettish and calculating.

Her lavish art deco apartment is financed by a possessive nightclub owner (Mark Strong), but she’s also spending quality time with a young producer (Tom Payne) mounting a West End musical, and dallying with her penniless accompanist (Lee Pace), who possesses talent and devotion to spare. When she’s not justifing her trio of suitors – and parsing how each could benefit her career – Delysia tries to convince the impressionable Miss Pettigrew that she appeared in Hollywood comedies like Four’s a Crowd (1938). When the movie-loving Guinevere asks what part, she breezily replies, “I was the crowd.” This brief exchange captures the dynamic of their relationship: Delysia brings the self-depriving Guinevere into her realm of pleasure and glamour, and the maternal Miss Pettigrew offers tough questions no one in the performer’s social circle would think to ask.

Adapting Winifred Watson’s 1938 novel, screenwriters David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) peel away the title character’s unflattering narrow-mindedness, and turn Miss Pettigrew into a no-nonsense maiden aunt. (Despite McDormand’s crisp English accent, she feels more American than the expat ingénue.) The bond between Delysia and Miss Pettigrew anchors the frenetic farce, where characters conveniently stumble upon each other, and everyone parties like there’s no tomorrow. But this innocuous romantic fable lacks the snappy rapport of a comedy of manners like Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry’s biting adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930).

A veteran of British television, Bharat Nalluri (Hustle, Life on Mars) tries to modernize the story with restless, dizzying camerawork. (It’s a common affliction in recent British period pieces, including the hyperactive Austen biopic, Becoming Jane.) He also relies too heavily on Paul Englishby’s bouncy jazz score to achieve a classic Ealing Studio rhythm, but doesn’t hit those comedic high notes. Framing characters within the ornamentation of their glossy world – the polished marble and swirling wrought iron of Delysia’s staircase, the ornate carved wooden dividers at Victoria Station – reveals an infatuation with shiny surfaces, but Nalluri neglects to do a proper inspection. Beneath the gleaming frivolity of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, the foundation is crumbling from dry rot.

Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on March 7, 2008 by Focus Features
First published in the Metro Times.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is available on Netflix