Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a 2008 British/American romantic comedy film directed by Bharat Nalluri. The screenplay by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy is based on the 1938 novel of the same name by Winifred Watson. Set in London just prior to World War II, the film is about a middle-aged, straight-laced vicar's daughter and governess Guinevere Pettigrew, who has been fired from her fourth job. When employment agency head Miss Holt insists that she won't help her, the destitute Miss Pettigrew leaves the office with an assignment intended for a colleague, unaware that flamboyant American singer/actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) wants a social secretary rather than a nanny. Arriving at the luxurious penthouse apartment where Delysia is staying, Miss Pettigrew quickly discovers the younger woman is involved with three men — penniless and devoted pianist Michael Pardue, who has just been released from prison; wealthy and controlling Nick Calderelli, who owns the nightclub where she is performing; and young theatre impresario Phil Goldman, who is in a position to cast her in the lead role in a West End play.
Some film types die out because audiences no longer support them. Others disappear because no one has the talent or skill to successfully resurrect them. The witty, wacky screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s were really nothing more than cultural clashes, the weird and eccentric meshing with the calm and conservative for some humor based class/gender warfare. The new film Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day harkens back to those days of ditzy heiresses, silly playboys, and suave leading men. And for the most part, it succeeds.
For Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand), London before the war is a cruel and heartless place. Fired from her most recent governess job, she’s homeless and penniless. Without a single prospect in sight, her life looks fairly bleak indeed. An overheard referral at an employment agency has her rushing off to the apartment of American actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams). When Miss Pettigrew inadvertently helps the bubble headed girl balance the three men in her life — nightclub owner Nick (Mark Strong), novice producer Phil (Tom Payne), and sensitive pianist Michael (Lee Pace) — she’s hired as a social secretary. Desperate for a part in a West End musical, Delysia will stop at nothing to get her way. During her adventures, Miss Pettigrew meets noted designer Edythe Dubarry (Shirley Henderson). A shared secret between the two will have our heroine trying to patch things up with the fashion maven’s boyfriend (Ciaran Hinds) before the day is over.
Madcap without being scattered, whimsical with just enough realism to keep us rooted, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a film that definitely lives up to its title. Over the course of an exasperating 24 hours, we will be witness to mistaken identities, little white lie subterfuges, emotional confrontations, and heartfelt reconciliations. The panache shown for this material by director Bharat Nalluri is quite charming. While he can’t match the Golden Age mavericks who took top of the line casts and twisted them into outrageous cogs in perfectly manufactured motion picture machines, there is a nice level of purposeful panic here. Of course, it helps to have Amy Adams in the lead. If Oscars were given out for hyperactive perkiness alone, she’d have a mantle full of gold.
As a foil, McDormand is equally engaging. Successfully maneuvering a clipped British accent, and working her way from zaniness to serious drama, she’s like a maudlin Mary Poppins, able to make the players’ metaphysical medicine go down with a spoon full of sarcasm, not sugar. While the men in Delysia’s life are fairly generic — Phil is a drip, Nick is a hood, Michael is a hopeless romantic — the actors essaying these parts alway bring something interesting to the mix. Perhaps the best performances outside of our leads come from Henderson and Hinds. She’s a pinched-up shrew who needs her fiancé’s connections to keep her boutique afloat. As the well-meaning Joe, Hinds must balance a high society sense of flash with a deep love of tradition. While his storyline ends up the most mawkish, we buy the slight over-sentimentality.
Indeed, most of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is won and lost on how well we identify and empathize with these characters. The script by David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) frequently overreaches — the musical moment which finds Adams torching ‘If I Didn’t Care’ with Michael is a strong example — but Nalluri’s sense of balance and control keeps it all approachable. While it’s not the most winning example of old genre revitalization ever attempted, this is one turn of the clock that produces more smiles than sighs.
Cotton candy! Yum.