Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day
Based on a 1938 novel by Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew is a slightly soggy trifle, a brittle West End comedy in the spirit of early Noel Coward (say, “Design for Living”) and American screwball comedies.
Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a dowdy governess, a brown smudge of a woman of indeterminate age with a starchy sense of propriety that’s considered old fashioned even in the 1930s. The deliciously self-named Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) is her opposite in almost everything: a giddy, sensual American showgirl juggling a trio of lovers from the luxury penthouse suite one of them is paying for.
Fired by her agency after one complaint too many (Miss Pettigrew has a bad habit of lecturing her employers), the penniless Miss P steals an appointment with a potential client, Ms Lafosse, who doesn’t have children but does need a personal assistant. Desperately. If only to show one chap out the back while she lets in the next.
You might not think a vicar’s daughter would relish this line of work, but Miss Pettigrew takes an indulgent view of Delysia’s rumpled bed sheets, and agrees to play Nanny McPhee to these spoiled, overgrown children.
With its relentlessly jaunty big band jazz score, art deco furnishings and air of determined frivolity, Bharat Nalluri’s film lays on the party mood – you get the impression Nalluri would have supplied bunting and balloons to cinemas if he could, and probably slipped a few whoopee cushions into the auditorium too.
It’s all such fun it takes a while before you realise that the script (by David Magee and Simon Full Monty Beaufoy) isn’t half as witty as Nalluri seems to think it is. You think you’re in for Champagne but end up with sour grapes.
In a role that would have fit Jean Harlow like a figure-hugging evening gown, Amy Enchanted Adams appears to be in her element, though she does seem to have overdosed on helium prior to shooting. Or maybe she is channeling squeaky, breathless Betty Boop, and trying much too hard. In her defence, she is playing a bad actress: Delysia can’t quite carry off her affectations, that’s partly why men go ga-ga over her.
Who would have played Miss Pettigrew if the movie had been made in Hollywood in 1941 as originally planned? (Apparently the Japanese put a stop to it with some diversionary fireworks in Pearl Harbor.) Perhaps Carol Lombard or Myrna Loy? Or maybe they would have gone all out and cast Dame May Whitty. In this day and age it’s perplexing that the producers couldn’t find a British actress to do the honours. It’s a giveaway that they made this with at least one eye on the American market.
Frances McDormand (Fargo) is a fine actress, but I never quite believed in Miss Pettigrew, so supremely practical and utterly unworldly – and her slightly wobbly accent didn’t help. There’s something a bit ridiculous about this experienced governess melting into a puddle when her new boss insists on treating her to a new wardrobe of lace and furs – a makeover overseen with haughty disdain by the story’s designated villainess, Shirley Henderson.
With everything seemingly in place for farce, the movie’s tone changes abruptly, and for the better, I think, in the more sober second half. Delysia’s suitors (played by Lee Pace, Tom Payne and Mark Strong) are all effortlessly eclipsed by Ciaran Hinds, as a fashion designer who takes an interest in Guinevere. The two of them reminisce, regretfully, about the last war, even as an air-raid sounds the imminence of the next.
If the film had laid the groundwork for this about-face it could have been more than innocuous confection. But that would have required more nuance and shading, and much less of the hard-sell in the early stages. As it is, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day suffers from the same weakness as Delysia, it’s trying to pretend it’s something it’s not.
Anyone nostalgic for pre-war Britain might be susceptible to its charms, but like the starlet’s dazzled lovers, in the end they’d just be fooling themselves.
Tom Charity firstname.lastname@example.org
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