Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (United Kingdom, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Amy Adams must enjoy fairy tales - this is the second one in which she has appeared during the last six months. Although Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day differs substantially in many key areas from Enchanted, both movies are anchored by Adams, whose beauty, charisma, and infectious energy make them compulsively watchable. Miss Pettigrew is a female buddy movie frosted with elements of whimsy and a little romance. Its setting of London during the latter years of the Great Depression allows its fanciful edge to meld with a bittersweet element of nostalgia. (Odd how one of the most widespread periods of human suffering during the 20th century has been romanticized over the years.) Miss Pettigrew is a feel-good production that strives and succeeds to put smiles on the faces of its viewers.

As fairy tales go, this one is a little more "adult" than Enchanted. While there's no profanity or violence (or indeed anything radically inappropriate for younger viewers), there are a few well-placed sexual innuendos, some coy nudity by Adams, and a brief butt shot courtesy of Tom Payne, who shows common sense in covering up quickly. Still, it's all pretty tame stuff by today's standards. In the end, Miss Pettigrew comes across feeling a little like Cinderella, although it's difficult to figure out whether the movie's title character is more appropriately linked to the girl who wore the glass slipper or the fairy godmother who made the whole thing possible. Maybe a little of both.

The time and place are London in the late 1930s. The era of the flapper has faded and now the shadow of war is falling over a country mired in unemployment and poverty. Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand), a nanny with somewhat limited skills, finds herself homeless and jobless. She gets her meals from soup kitchens and sleeps in train stations. Luck places her in a position to steal a job from her former agency, but she misunderstands the nature of the position, thinking it's for a nanny when, in reality, it's for a social secretary. So, when she shows up at the door of actress/nightclub singer Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), she is nonplused by what she finds. Mrs. Pettigrew is nothing if not adaptable and, in no time, she is bringing order to both Delysia's chaotic daily schedule and to her complicated love life. The beautiful young woman has three boyfriends: Nick (Mark Strong), the man who owns the flat where she lives; Phil (Tom Payne), the producer of a West End production in which she wants the lead role; and Michael (Lee Pace), a penniless piano player. No prizes for guessing which one is Prince Charming. Meanwhile, even as Mrs. Pettigrew irons out the wrinkles in Delysia's life, she becomes enmeshed in a romantic triangle of her own, caught between Edythe (Shirley Henderson), a cold, bitchy clothing store owner, and Joe (Ciaran Hinds), a suave, handsome lingerie designer.

There are two reasons why this movie works so effectively as a confection. The first is the screenplay, credited to David Magee and Simon Beaufoy and based on the novel by Winifred Watson. It understands the elements necessary to develop this simple mistaken identity premise into a feel-good fable. Chief among the strengths is the relationship between Miss Pettigrew and Delysia. As in all good buddy movies, each possesses strengths the other lacks. Delysia is the free-spirit, imbued with life and energy. Miss Pettigrew provides grounding and perspective. They complement and teach each other. Male buddy movies in general tend to do this yin-and-yang thing better than female ones; this is an exception.

The second reason relates to casting. There are no misfires. Every actor fulfills his or her role solidly. Adams enchants as a delightful flibbertigibbet, and the always reliable Frances McDormand is her perfect opposite. Lee Pace, one of the stars of the TV series Pushing Daisies, has all the right qualities for Delysia's romantic partner, chief of which is likeability. And Ciaran Hinds puts aside his recent string of unsympathetic portrayals to call upon the charm he employed a decade ago in Persuasion. Edythe, Miss Pettigrew's villainess (to the extent that she can be considered such) isn't bad-to-the-bone, and Shirley Henderson plays her with a hint of humanity.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is lightweight and airy, a breeze through the stale theater air of early March. The period setting, big band sound, and impeccable costumes lend it an air of apparent sophistication. To the extent that the movie touches on serious topics (such as Miss Pettigrew's lifetime of loneliness and her commitment to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to her new friend), it lingers only long enough to provide a moment of thought or reflection. Adams shines brightly, reinforcing the image she projected in Junebug and enhanced in Enchanted and Charlie Wilson's War. At this time of the year, it's tough to find a more diverting way to spend 90 minutes in a multiplex.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (United Kingdom, 2008)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2008-03-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Brief Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1