Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
by Jef Burnham
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Though I had little interest in the film initially, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, just as Amy Adams as Delysia Lafosse did most every man in the film, charmed the pants off me—this is in no small part thanks to wonderful performances by Frances McDormand (Fargo, Friends with Money) and Ciarán Hinds (Rome, There Will Be Blood), as well as a soundtrack including music from the 1930s. Though it may be a little excessively twee from time to time, the film hardly attains the sickening level of cutesiness the trailers portray.
The day in which Miss Pettigrew (McDormand) “lives” is, in fact, the very day England entered World War II in 1939. Pettigrew, who has gained a reputation as the worst governess in England, finds herself unemployed and then, somewhat by luck, stumbles into a position as a social secretary for aspiring actress Delysia Lafosse (Adams), who hopes that Pettigrew can assist her in juggling her three lovers. And it’s a complicated situation. Delysia is living in a flat owned by Nick (Mark Strong of Stardust and Sunshine). She also sings at Nick’s nightclub the Scarlet Peacock, where she is accompanied on piano by her long-time lover Michael (Lee Pace of The Good Shepherd and Possession). She has also bedded (in Nick’s flat nonetheless) Phil Goldman (Tom Payne), the dimwitted son of a big-time theatre producer in the West End.
Pettigrew’s relationship with Delysia’s world is an unwelcome one for the old-fashioned governess, who has little patience for the love games of the free-spirited youth. Fortunately for her, and for the audience, she meets Joe (Ciaran Hinds), the only other person in the room who remembers The Great War. Hinds is charming as Joe. The problem here is that far more time is given to Delysia’s affairs, which are for the most part trivial, rather than Pettigrew’s past, which is only discussed in passing and is far more interesting.
Adams, who achieved her greatest notoriety for her role in Enchanted, is tolerable here. She is predictably cute and bubbly, but her performance feels unnatural. As such, she fails to deliver on most of the comedy, but her image is saved, being coupled with McDormand in every scene. Adams also spends a great deal of the first half of the film partially nude, and though she is usually naked save for a single garment, it’s surprising that we see nothing more than the occasional thigh (much to the dismay, I’m sure, of every guy who will take his significant other to see the film). These nude scenes culminate in an image of Delysia as Aphrodite as she stands naked by her tub, covered only by a towel.
Included in the soundtrack are two of my favorite songs of the period, Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” and “If I Didn’t Care,” which was first performed in 1939 by The Ink Spots (who, I might add, did a wonderful rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”).
The film’s direction by Bharat Nalluri, whose only major credit is the third installment of The Crow series, is nothing special, derivative of so many other films set in the period. However, the screenplay by David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) from the novel Winifred Watson can be commended for putting so much of the story in a singular location, which I’m sure was that way in the novel, but changing it would have taken away from the farcical aspects. And their dialogue never becomes insultingly sentimental, an obvious pitfall considering the time in which it is set.
Overall, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is an enjoyable film with a fair bit of humor and a significant amount of historical context adding an appreciable extra layer to an otherwise predictable romantic storyline.
Jef Burnham is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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