“Miss Pettigrew, you look like you’ve never attended a cocktail party in your life,” says fashion show commentator Edith Dubarry (Shirley Henderson), betrothed to famous fashion designer Joe Blumfield. She hasn’t. She’s just a waif posing as someone who has. That is the premise of Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, a whimsical film that admirably plays things straight enough that you can’t quite call it a fairytale. At the center is an unexpected friendship between members of two different classes, who change each others lives for the better.
Set in London during the dawn of Britain’s involvement with WWII, Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a nanny struggling to keep herself off the streets. Before she lives the best day of her life, she must first go through the worst. After losing her job and having no place to sleep, her employment agency tells her there is nothing else available. So she steals the identity of another, more qualified nanny and ends up on the door step of a luxurious flat where a beautiful red head named Delyisa Lafosse (Amy Adams) lives.
At first Miss Pettigrew thinks that Delyisa is the owner of the flat and mother to a boy named Phil. Phil (Tom Payne) turns out to be a fully grown man who Delyisa has just slept with. He is also a stage producer and Delyisa is hoping to get the lead role in his upcoming play. When Phil leaves, Miss Pettigrew meets Nick (Mark Strong), the actual owner of the flat and also the owner of the club Delyisa sings at. It seems Delyisa has two paths ahead of her as both men are anxious to marry her. One could lead to Broadway stardom, the other will still manage to keep her rich and happy. Of course, there is a third player: Delyisa’s best friend Michael (Lee Pace) who has had enough of Phil and Nick and wants Delyisa to make up her mind about who she wants to be with. Meanwhile as Miss Pettigrew poses as Delyisa’s “social secretary,” she lives for a day in high society which includes going to fashion shows and cocktail parties.
Miss Pettigrew doesn’t start out very well, but an acerbic final 60 minutes more than makes up for the uneven first 30. It is a very uneven film at the beginning. It’s a standard Act I where not much happens, but it’s on speed and the audience is somehow left behind. The setup is strained and moves at an unnecessary fast pace accompanied by rowdy jazz music, which I don’t think is ever played again after the twenty minute mark. That’s where things settle down and start to become more fulsome with good dialogue and well-developed characters.
You start to realize that there’s more to this movie than what you originally expected. In fact, there’s even a scene that comes out of nowhere that really hits you hard. Up to this point, the one flaw that was bugging me was the promiscuity of Delyisa and how her playing with men’s emotions makes her an unlikable character. But this is explained in a brilliant, nostalgic background story in what is easily the best scene in the movie. It’s the scene that saves the film from being below average and it is here where these members of different classes finally come to an understanding of one another. We expect this to happen eventually, but the scene is so well done that it catches you off guard.
The film marks the arrival of an impressive new talent in director Bharat Nalluri. Although the first act is spotty, Nalluri seems to pick up on things quickly as the movie goes along. It takes a lot of talent to nail a scene like the one mentioned above. The script by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy, adapted from the novel by Winifred Watson, doesn’t fail to surprise and it helps that the two main characters are brought to full fruition by the reliable McDormand and the firecracker that is Amy Adams.
Although the target audience for Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day is clearly women, the film is smart enough that it can be enjoyed by all who have the pleasure of meeting the titular character. Oscar winner McDormand, who is making her first big screen appearance in almost two years, and the red hot Adams, who took film lovers everywhere by storm after her amazing performance in Enchanted, are both at the top of their game. For Adams, it is a role that will help her transition from a well respected supporting player to a lead star and for McDormand it is a much welcomed return to form as she portrays Miss Pettigrew in a way that only she can pull off. Think back to Fargo. Could anyone have played that character better than McDormand? Probably not and it’s the same kind of performance here.