Film review: ‘Miss Pettigrew’ lives a little through charm of McDormand, Adams
AP Movie Writer
From the title “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” you might assume correctly that the lady in question hasn’t really lived before this particular day arrived.
So too, the film starring Frances McDormand as frumpy governess Miss Pettigrew and Amy Adams as the giddy actress who takes her on as a social secretary only gradually learns how to get a life.
After a slow and tiresome start, “Miss Pettigrew” forges ahead with true British fortitude and class, an endearing bond forming between McDormand and Adams, who are ably backed by a top-notch supporting cast led by Ciaran Hinds and Shirley Henderson.
The elegant production compensates for a predictable dual-Cinderella story as a self-righteous ascetic and social-climbing bimbo teach each other how life might be more satisfying lived somewhere in between their respective extremes.
Adapted by director Bharat Nalluri (TV’s “Tsunami: The Aftermath”) from Winifred Watson’s novel, the film follows the monumental makeover that unfolds during one day in the life of McDormand’s Guinevere Pettigrew in 1930s London.
Destitute after losing the latest in a string of governess gigs and unable to find a new job because of her judgmental temperament, the impossibly high-minded Miss Pettigrew takes an uncharacteristic step. She bluffs her way into a job as social secretary to flighty American actress-singer Delysia Lafosse (Adams).
With a chaotic life that’s the reverse image of Miss Pettigrew’s, Delysia juggles affairs with three men: a menacing nightclub owner (Mark Strong) whose luxurious flat she calls home; a boyish stage producer (Tom Payne) in whose musical she hopes to star; and a penniless pianist (Lee Pace) who adores Delysia for who she is, not the celebrity she wants to become.
The movie’s first act is an awkward, unconvincing series of miscues, chance encounters and mistaken identities. Everyone comes together in an initial jumble as Nalluri and screenwriters David Magee and Simon Beaufoy struggle to introduce the players, who include Hinds as lingerie designer Joe and Henderson as his duplicitous fiancee, Edythe.
Miss Pettigrew initially is an unsympathetic stiff, while Delysia starts off as an extremely annoying variation of Adams’ helpless princess from “Enchanted.” Granted, the point of the story is how the two women will set examples that help center the other, but it’s mighty hard to warm up to either through the first third of the film.
With the introductions over, the movie begins to gel and the characters blossom into richer, likable people. Miss Pettigrew proves oddly adept at moving among the city’s fashionable elite and reordering Delysia’s cluttered life, while Delysia reveals a sturdy mettle beneath her fickle exterior.
There is nothing remotely surprising in how the transformations of the two women play out in this fairy tale for adults. “Mary Poppins” it’s not. Not even “Nanny McPhee.”
Yet through the devotion of its performers and the beguiling interplay between McDormand and Adams, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” eventually musters enough life-force to justify its charmed little existence.
“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 for some partial nudity and innuendo. Running time: 92 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.