Love is not a game.
— Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand)
The title tells too much. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day sends a lonely, sanctimonious governess from dejection to delight within a mere 24 hours. Though she begins her day just fired from yet another position, she ends her evening with an ideal mate, her smile warm and winning, her troubles apparently behind her.
Miss Pettigrew, first name Guinevere (Frances McDormand) is imperious in a way that suggests she’s also insecure, that is, she’s feeling incomplete and poorly measured by the legions of others who can’t understand. Ordered from her latest employment by a mistress who is, Guinevere says, too “fond of her sherry,” she shuffles off to the employment agency, muttery and self-righteous, with a penchant for punctuating her assertions with exclamation points. It appears she has pushed her luck once too often, however, as her placement officer refuses to help her. “You adapt to them,” Miss Holt (Stephanie Cole), plainly weary of explaining how a governess position is supposed to work. Facing a grim immediate future — in 1939’s London, the soup kitchens and homeless shelters are especially dark and dirty — Guinevere acts impulsively, grabbing an address for one more job from Miss Holt’s desk.
As tends to happen in such lightweight contrivances, this last hope will prove the perfect match for our heroine, where she demonstrate repeatedly her verbal dexterity and emotional restraint, as well as her vast reserves of haughty calm. The occasion for this performance is, unsurprisingly, the chaotic household of an American actress. The quite delightfully stage-named Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams, who has now officially played the vivacious sweetheart once too often) is staying at one of her three boyfriend’s homes (this belong to the mustachioed nightclub owner Nick [Mark Strong]), missing another (her piano player Michael [Lee Pace]), and desperate to win the lead in a play produced by a third’s father.
On her arrival, Guinevere finds the place in post-drunken reverie shambles, mistaking Delysia’s request that she get “him” out of bed to mean that she has a child in need of rousing. The fact that you know what’s up long before Guinevere does hardly makes you trust her judgment. She explains her inaccuracy as a function of her upbringing: “I’m the daughter of a clergyman,” she says, and so her childhood was “perhaps a little sheltered.” But when Delysia insists she buy her new costumes, with special attention to adding color to the older woman’s utterly drab mien. (You can almost hear Alicia Silverstone squealing, “Project!” as Delysia dons her own fetching hat in preparation for their adventure).
When she meets young Phil (Tom Payne), who is naked (“A bigger boy than I expected!”), Guinevere makes the usual sputtering noises and hurries back downstairs, determined to right the rooms if she can’t sort out Delysia’s messy romancing. Turns out that Delysia is in fact trying to do that, though she’s prone to give herself over to the most hackneyed of come-ons. How convenient, that the brash American and the stuffy Brit have need of one another. When an initial crisis appears resolved and Guinevere suggests she’s made a mistake and should be on her way, Delysia stops her. “The crisis is ongoing,” she asserts. “I need saving.”
Ah yes, such is the design of wacky upper-crusty comedies of the 1930s and early ’40s, wherein the loyal servant or underclass interloper proves plucky and resourceful, and the wealthy employer discovers a previously unknown fortitude and moral sense, having spent a little time with someone less fortunate. As much as Guinevere disapproves of her youthful employer’s flitty rhythms and self-absorption, the newly defined social secretary does find in her a certain passion and desire that Guinevere has repressed. But before the relationship between the women threatens to become too intimate (class lines needing to remain in place), Guinevere is distracted by her own desire, directed appropriately toward a man her own age, Joe (Ciarán Hinds, ever the exquisite underplayer).
The film includes the usual sort of complication, namely that Joe, a designer of women’s brassieres, is currently distracted by his on-and-off-again fiancée Edythe (Shirley Henderson). The fact that she is both deceitful and supercilious, not to mention a most dreadful fashion victim, insures that Edythe poses no competition for her more demure, frequently embarrassed rival. (Guinevere’s own social awkwardness does not keep her from dispensing all manner of advice — good and apparently bad — to Delysia, who is in turn so keen for a generous companion as well as a vaguely maternal figure that the women bond easily, as much over their mutual errors in judgment as their minor triumphs.
As Delysia and Guinevere debate (mildly) the proper treatment of their male companions (“Men are so untrusting,” Delysia flounces, “I wonder why that is”), they come to understand themselves as players in a broad-based game, though each holds out for a conventional love story, earnest and deserved. Here the movie delivers pretty much precisely to expectations. While the sets are lovely and the costumes delicious, the film is limited by its lack of innovation. Recalling an earlier style, it doesn’t find much new to say, about the previous incarnations’ contexts or fictions, their efforts to paint a particular picture of a difficult historical moment. As Guinevere and Joe recall their own wartime experiences and lament the youngsters’ naïveté, they gesture toward Miss Pettigrew‘s possibilities, its understanding of the fictions of the era it replicates so carefully. That it ends up reinforcing the fictions instead of reframing or rethinking them is the movie’s greatest disappointment — and even so, it seems trivial.