“Money or love?”
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day indeed. And quite the day it was. Here is the “governess of last resort,” a daughter of a vicar, raised in a sheltered world of modesty. After butting heads with her previous employers due to their lack of courtesy, manners, and morals, Miss Pettigrew finds herself hungry, penniless, and very desperate. In a moment of need, she steals the address of a prospective client and pops over to pose as the woman sent for the job. Expecting a young boy to have to look after for his rich and busy mother, she finds herself in a world like she has never seen. Caught in an aristocratic puzzle of greed, lust, power, and ego, she tries her hardest to remember that love is not a game. In order to keep the lid on her lies, though, she finds herself unwittingly becoming a key pawn on the board, moving pieces around to where they say they want to go, but where she knows they truly don’t. She must not falter on her morals, however, despite the detours along the way, as she is the last stop for her new boss to finally discover the joy and life of love that has been sitting right in front of her.
The first thing one will notice with this film is the very careful attention to detail in the scenery and apparel. We are transported into the late-30s/early-40s, right on the cusp of World War II, a time of social upheaval wherein the youth sees the prospect of an adventure and the aged see only disaster as they recall the losses they suffered during the first war. This threat overshadows the proceedings, but in a very subtle way, never making itself known until serving the plot. Instead we are given a screwball comedy of errors, a cornucopia of deceit and subversion as everyone has a hidden agenda, building relationships to get ahead in the world. Our subject is an American actress who has been transplanted to Britain in order to find fame. Miss Delysia Lafosse finds herself embroiled in a domineering coupling with a nightclub owner who she sings for, a tryst with a young West End producer in attempts to secure a coveted role, and a friendship of pure love with her pianist companion. Career and wealth overpower her sense of reason and the intrusion of Miss Pettigrew could not have occurred at a more opportune time. It is quite refreshing to see a period piece without all the stuffiness one normally associates with them. It is also funny to say something feels so unique when it so blatantly steals the style of films that were made in the very era this takes place. Thankfully that aesthetic still brings the laughter and intrigue even today.
Based on a novel from 1938, the story doesn’t try to be more than it is. This is a tale of diverting entertainment with plot threads that are obvious from the first frame. There is something pleasant about that, though, because one can check their skepticism at the door and just sit down to relax and watch the show. The acting is broad and over-the-top, yet finds itself reined in at the right moments to truly let the actors emote that which their roles express. Anytime you have a story with a love-triangle as complex and comical as it is here, you know the tale will end happily ever after. That does not mean the hijinks leading up to that moment won’t be a joyous ride.
What can you say about Frances McDormand and Amy Adams? These are two fantastic actresses who bring their best and play off each other splendidly. While Junebug is still the role I think of when I see Adams, her overly expressive gestures and facial contortions can’t help but bring a smile to your face. Reminiscent of her turn in Enchanted, Adams, as Lafosse, has a lot of fun here while still being able to tone it down for the serious moments, allowing us to care for her despite the horribly stupid decisions she makes over and over again. As for McDormand as the titular character, it is good to see her back in a leading role. Not since Fargo can I remember her take front billing and appear in almost every frame of a movie. She fully encompasses the role and creates a transformation so realistic that you never question her motives. The entire film takes place in a day, so her attitude of unworthiness is believable as it is all happening so fast. Being the exact opposite to every other role in the film allows her to make a difference to all the naïve people around her. She is the little bird whispering in their ears, knowing through the rough life she has led what is truly important. And maybe, in helping those she meets, a little well deserved happiness awaits her too.
Every part of Miss Pettigrew drives on to its inevitable conclusion, but I can’t say one moment was done wrong. In fact, we are treated to some stunning sequences, from the full waltz between McDormand and Ciarán Hinds (in a large role for once after the bits parts recently in Margot at the Wedding, There Will Be Blood, etc.) circling the dance floor to the climactic song between Adams and her pianist friend played wonderfully by Lee Pace. After enjoying his work in “Pushing Daisies,” I hope Pace will begin to find more and more work because he plays the likeable, love-struck soul to perfection. You won’t be seeing any Oscars come from this film, but as a date movie, you can do a lot worse. Take your loved ones to see this and have a nice, good-natured time at the movies. If nothing else it will put a smile on your face.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day 7/10 | ★ ★ ★
 Frances McDormand (left) and Amy Adams (right) star in Bharat Nalluri's MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, a Focus Features release. Copyright © Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.
 Lee Pace stars in Bharat Nalluri's MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, a Focus Features release. Photo: Kerry Brown