There's an ocean of charm to swim in "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," a slightly madcap, endearing comedy that restores a little old fashioned screwball magic to the uptight film marketplace. Oh, and it helps to have two of the industry's best actresses on display in meaty, observant roles.
Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a dour, homeless governess looking for a job in pre-WWII London. Using a bit of uncharacteristic deception to secure employment, Pettigrew lands on the doorstep of Delysia LaFosse (Amy Adams), a starlet with as many boyfriends as there are days of the week. LaFosse needs Pettigrew's discipline as she climbs social ladders, playing the men off each other to further her career. For Pettigrew, the opportunity offers her new clothes, a makeover, and a chance to bask in the glow of wealth and privilege. As the day wears on, both women discover the true consequences of love, finding they can learn from each other in unexpected areas of life.
"Miss Pettigrew" is not only set in the 1930s, but also pilfers cues from the filmmaking techniques of the era. At times it's a broad comedy with ace comic timing, and while director Bharat Nalluri ("The Crow: Salvation") is an unlikely choice for a production general, he choreographs the joviality with ease, salvaging tiny fragments of Preston Sturges-style screen agility and lends it a modern twist by encouraging the actors to emote more deeply beyond the glassy surface. Nalluri also dives into the material with a great appetite and respects the fine edges of comedy and tragedy, mixing them up to thrilling results.
"Pettigrew" is an actor's picture, and with McDormand and Adams guiding the show, there's little room for disappointment. Embodying uptight vocational panic, McDormand eases into the role slowly, maintaining Pettigrew's aversion to the high-flying lifestyle of decadence she's fallen into while nurturing an increasing sense of comfort and pleasure from her new friends, watching her disapprovals twirl into sympathies. The actress uses her reactions as the spine of the performance, and that opens up a road map of nuance few could pull off. Pettigrew is a knowing shrew, yet in McDormand's interpretation, she's a wellspring of curiosity that gives the picture unusual dramatic heft.
Adams is strawberry bubble gum and doesn't just chase after the performance, she boards it like a rocket and blasts off. It's equal parts adorability, cunning allure, and million-dollar charm. Adams has the showier role, but she doesn't allow for any one-dimensionality to LaFosse, playing the industry desperation just as strongly as her bubbly helium hits of comedy. Adams and McDormand make for a swell screen team, only to be further enhanced by the likes of Ciaran Hinds as a lingerie designer who finds Pettigrew enchanting, Lee Pace as LaFosse's one true love, and Shirley Henderson, evoking rusted cold steel as the keeper of Pettigrew's secret.
While the screenplay (adapted from the 1938 novel by Winifred Watson) touches down in the midsection to sort out the emotional realities of the ladies, it concludes on a poignant note of fairy-dusted Hollywood twists and sincere emotion, radiating from the talent. Fanciful, high-wire period comedy usually falls flat on its face, but "Miss Pettigrew" is intelligent, captivating, and manages to avoid the common pitfalls, culminating in something actually quite special.
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