by Nick Pinkerton
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Dir. Bharat Nalluri, U.S., Focus Features
A middle-aged, getting-your-groove-back Cinderella story: Miss Pettigrew, an unsuccessful domestic used to taking her meals in breadlines, maneuvers a job with a flighty American â€śactressâ€ť abroad, Delysia Lafosse. Just like that, prim Pettigrew is off the streets and hovering around the nexus of the London smart set, where her self-possession and propriety are suddenly rare and valuable commodities. It doesnâ€™t take long for a reasonably handsome suitor to notice.
The filmâ€™s basis is a novel by one Winifred Watson, written in 1938, the year in which Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is set; shadows of the depression and oncoming war are cast over the proceedings. Pettigrew, as played by Frances McDormand, starts out a dun-clad frowse, hair a crisped nest, seemingly incapable of taking ten steps in any direction without confronting some ungraceful incident. All of this changes with her introduction to Amy Adamsâ€™s Lafosse, a dialogue spouter who punctuates her lineswith a squirty giggle, and whose sheer momentum of living doesnâ€™t allow Pettigrew space for self-consciousness. Lafosse is the live-in tart of a nightclub owner (Mark Strong), screwing another fella for a stage role (Tom Payne), and desperately in love with a third, noble suitor who wants her and her only (played by Lee Pace; the character has no worthwhile connections, naturally). She plugs Pettigrew into the role of her â€śsocial secretary,â€ť charged with keeping all the balls in the air (ahem), and to everyoneâ€™s surprise, the Miss does so quite wellâ€”McDormand exudes the appropriate sense of astonishment in her newfound capacities.
The film takes place over a roughly 24-hour period, in which these two â€śtypesâ€ť gradually intermingle, and so start the next day attenuated into something more human. McDormandâ€™s Cameron Frye is shaken out of her â€śsackcloth and ashesâ€ť to learn a little self-regard from Adamsâ€™s Ferris Bueller, while the starlet lets down her effervescent act long enough to remember that sheâ€™s really just a love-starved girl from Pittsburgh going after the brass ring.
I didnâ€™t laugh at any point in this comedy, so-called, but this isnâ€™t as big a deal as one might think, because except for a few hard-brake punchline stops (Pettigrew being taken for a salon facial andâ€”my stars!â€”eating the cucumber slices over her eyes), the movie puts more of a premium on being likable than hilarious. And the leading ladies are both smart performers, reasonably well served by their director.
The demographic of this film isnâ€™t hard to divine: women of a certain age whoâ€™ve been unserviced by the crassness of the multiplex, and whoâ€™ve taken refuge in boutique releases imported from the British Empire. Itâ€™s politely frisky fare, with a few glimpses of bare bum, and set-dressed to the nines in the finest period patterns (Lafosseâ€™s crash pad is the only excuse for widescreen, an opulent gold-leaf fantasia of high-living, complete with Venus-on-the-half-shell bathtub). The most common reaction to it will be either â€śWhy do they even bother making that stuff?â€ť or â€śWell, that was sweet.â€ť Neither view is without merit.