When Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was released in the spring of 2008, film critics practically fell over each other to grasp at synonyms for “light”. Glimpse at its Rotten Tomatoes page and you’ll see it described, variously, as “light as a feather”, “like a breeze”, “improbably airy entertainment”, “delicious froth”, “a champagne cocktail”, “ultra-light screwball comedy”, and, finally giving in to the food metaphors on the tips of everyone’s tongues, “light as a hot buttery cinnamon scone”/
Indeed, this film, set in London at the dawn of World War II, tips its hat to the screwball comedies of that era and, with its light swearing and tasteful semi-nudity, is probably grandmother-safe. But the performances give it a weight that’s all the more effective for not announcing itself with an awkward clang.
Even the beginning, though, has twinges of sadness, with a middle-aged woman in near-poverty. After Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) loses a series of governess jobs, she desperately bluffs her way into a “social secretary” position with struggling American actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams). Once Miss Pettigrew meets Delysia, the film proceeds as more traditional farce, though it’s more charming and energetic than truly funny. The dialogue lacks the interlocking wittiness (and barbs) of the best screwball pictures, but maybe that’s the right choice for characters whose desperation is not always so funny.
Delysia, as the younger of the two, is more superficially hopeful. She’s juggling three men in her semi-professional orbit: Nick (Mark Strong), a rich man and nightclub owner; Phil (Tom Payne), the son of another rich man, who will supposedly make her a star; and Michael (Lee Pace), a broke piano player who seems to truly love her, but can’t offer much more. As a sunny optimist struggling against the harsh realities of the real world, Delysia isn’t so different from the displaced cartoon princess Adams played in Disney’s Enchanted.
But Pettigrew is a smarter, snappier movie that gives the gifted actress sturdier framework. Adams makes Delysia’s screwball dizziness a nervous tic of sorts; her face, mouth, and shoulders appear to be running in place, working overtime to keep her days moving and her men beguiled (you can see why it works, too). When Delysia does slow and quiet down, then, it’s all the more striking.
McDormand, meanwhile, has too much nuance to play Pettigrew as a repressed stuffed shirt for easy laughs; instead, she gives us a reasonable and lonely woman, trying to keep pace with modern life. She shares several touching moments with fashion designer Joe Plumfield (Ciaran Hinds), bonding over the bad memories of that first World War that their younger counterparts don’t recall, or choose not to.
The inclusion of the between-war context seems to be the biggest departure from the film’s source, a 1938 novel by Winifred Watson (which I haven’t read). “Miss Pettigrew’s Long Trip to Hollywood,” a brief DVD feature featuring Watson’s son as well as some of the cast and crew, explains that because the book was written approximately when the movie takes place, Watson was focused less on what becomes historical context in the film, and more on the social mores (we also learn that the book was considered somewhat risqué at the time).
That additional context is well-integrated by the director, Bharat Halluri—maybe his skill is responsible for the movie’s light, flaky crust of a reputation. He mentions, on an otherwise fairly sedate feature-length commentary, that while he consciously gave the film a bit of a “fairy tale” feel, he wanted the background to resemble “dancing on the Titanic”.
This is contradicted a little by an ending perhaps a touch more optimistic than necessary—almost as if the movie startles itself back into romantic-comedy mode— but too likable (and faithful to Watson’s work, according to her son) to quibble. It’s so likable, in fact, that many could only describe the experience of watching a likable comedy-drama in terms of clouds and frosting.
It’s a shame that more of the superlative cast doesn’t show up to make the case for Miss Pettigrew. The “Long Trip” featurette mentions that McDormand had been attached to the project for several years, which makes her absence on the commentary track all the more disappointing. But the clear, simple pleasures of the film don’t require more scrutiny—even if that shiny light surface can actually bear it.