Bharat Nalluri’s film, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, covers a glamorous 24-hours in London on the precipice of WWII. Although the film is deemed a romantic comedy the label doesn’t quite fit. The romance genre suggests something sappy and slow, rather than the subtle and snappy film we have before us. Its humor is mostly conveyed through Delysia’s high-pitched ditz and lip-biting charm. (IMDB)
Indeed, the number of events that take place in a single day is so dizzying that Miss Pettigrew herself (Frances McDormand) is unable to take a bite of food. Her character had been to a soup kitchen the previous night but she was bumped in line and her portion spilled onto the street. Needless to say, she is famished.
This plucky film grabs you like a new best friend, similar to how Adams’ character, Delysia Lafosse, a socialite-slash-aspiring actress, grabs Miss Pettigrew, an older woman seeking work as a nanny, squeals “I love you!” and kisses her on the mouth — just shortly after meeting her. Miss Pettigrew quickly discovers that the ad she answered was not to care for children but rather to be a “social secretary” for Delysia, who needs help getting one man out of her bed before the man she lives with arrives home.
While the film may be story-boarded to focus on Delysia choosing between three lovers on “the most important day of her life”, it is in fact a story about recognizing that life is short, and that choosing love over money is the best way to grapple with that reality and still end up relatively content.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was released in 2008 and largely holds up due to the class acts of Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, and Ciarán Hinds (as Joe), as well as the enormous amount of pain and desire that Lee Pace (as Michael), of Pushing Daisies fame, can convey with his eyes. (I had been wondering why I hadn’t seen Pace in any film recently, except in a trailer as a heavily painted Marvel villain, so I worried my memory had done me a disservice about his acting capability. Upon rewatching Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day I was relieved to find this worry was unfounded.) His screen time likely totals fewer than 15 minutes and yet, he is, as McDormand’s character Guinevere Pettigrew says upon meeting Michael, “magnificent”.
There’s not much competition among the lovers in Guinivere’s eyes. Nick, who owns the flat where Delysia lives, is a smarmy, misogynist owner of a cocktail lounge, and Phil is the 19-year-old casting director (and son of the producer) of a play in which Delysia seeks to star, but is otherwise little more than milk in substance. Compared to Pace’s Michael, these characters solely represent egoism and economic opportunity.
However, Delysia is desperate — she reveals to Miss Pettigrew about halfway through the story that her given name is Sarah Grubb, of the Pittsburgh Grubbs, and her father is a steelworker. She could easily lose a job and end up on the streets, which is why she clings to the idea of the spotlight. With most people, Delysia is just pretending; only Michael knows her real name.
Guinivere empathizes with this “pretending” — she is homeless, and not really a social secretary — but even so, she does not see the appeal of Delysia’s predicament. She remains sure of herself throughout her exposure to the glitz and glamour, and demonstrates that a new scarf can be nice, but hope of a better life is not worth compromising one’s values.
The parallel relationship to Delysia and Michael is that of Miss Pettigrew and Joe (played by Hinds), a renowned fashion designer whom she meets through Delysia before her makeover montage, while still wearing the only clothing she owns. The basis of the relationship that grows between them (again, in a single day) is that they both lost loved ones in World War I, while the frivolous young things around them don’t even remember it.
When he’s with Guenivere, Joe feels transported to a more realized version of himself, wanting to design a gentleman’s sock instead of a brassiere. The next day, Sarah Grubb finds herself with love but no financial prospects, while Miss Pettigrew finds herself with both. Though it may not be the most scalable lesson, she fins success without seeking it, and one gets the sense that she has had neither love nor money for so long that no one could be more deserving of a partner and also something to eat.
Watching this film during a global pandemic, two weeks out from a critical US Presidential election, provides a reprieve from worry. Guinevere and Joe were not worried about the war, exactly, but they never forget about it. They demonstrate a tacit resignation to their fate coupled with a resolve to push through, hopefully together. After all, what is the purpose of being fearful when we know we have limited control over our circumstances?
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.