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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 15, 2023


Starring Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Lee Pace, Ciarán Hinds, Shirley Henderson, Mark Strong, Tom Payne, Christina Cole, Sarah Kants, Claire Clifford, Stephanie Cole, Tim Potter, Mo Zinal, Matt Ryan and Sally Leonard.

Screenplay by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy.

Directed by Bharat Nalluri.

Distributed by Focus Features. 92 minutes. Rated PG-13.

If you are willing to take the great challenge of trying to recreate the atmosphere of the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s, you are courting danger. The movie could be hopelessly quaint in the new millennium. It might be a museum piece which bears little resemblance or relevance to the modern day.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, based on a once beloved but now somewhat forgotten 1938 novel of the same name by Winifred Watson, skirts that danger most convincingly. The beginning scenes may be a hair too broad (though they feel comfortable with their source material), but then all the pieces snap into place and Miss Pettigrew becomes a terrific film which can be appreciated on several different levels.

Partially because it hews so closely to era of the source material (the script itself is not so much faithful to the words as it is the spirit of the novel), it becomes okay to not necessarily try to shoehorn these characters into modern sensibilities.

Miss Pettigrew is definitively a story of its time. When was the last film you saw in which both female leads ended up choosing love over their career – essentially allowing men to care for them rather than capturing their dreams of doing it themselves?

And yet, at the same time, the heroines are both strong and driven women. There is also a sexual openness to the script which would have been rather shocking in the days of Myrna Loy or Carol Lombard (though it is rather chaste by modern sensibilities.).

Frances McDormand (Fargo) is perfect as a repressed British nanny – a no-nonsense minister's daughter who has been fired from every position she has ever taken because she is unable to hold her tongue about the parent's flaws. With no opportunities at work and no place to live, she bluffs her way into a position that she is completely unqualified for – the "social secretary" for a bubble-headed American starlet.

Amy Adams' character is more broadly drawn and thus harder to reign in, and yet Adams once again shows a sure-handed talent in playing light, innocent comic characters. She is Delysia, a star-wannabe who will romance anyone needed to get her career going. She is sweet and sexy and surprisingly sensitive – but is not always smart enough to do what is best for herself.

Since Delysia is too flighty to say no to any of the guys in her life, Miss Pettigrew acts as a good barrier for her. However, an interesting thing happens – not only does the shallow party girl learn from knowing the staid minister's daughter, but Miss Pettigrew learns from Delysia as well.

The film also adds a darker level to the source material – the specter of the lingering war around the corner. The references to the coming of World War II (which of course were not there in the book, simply because the War hadn't come yet) are usually subtly handled, though they just occasionally feel shoehorned in. Miss Pettigrew also turns out to have a tragic background revolving around war, which adds depth and nuance to the character.

However, Miss Pettigrew works at its best as a look at not-so-modern love and relationships. It is a visually stunning film, well-acted, fast-talking and sweetly romantic. You don't see movies like this often anymore, and that's a shame.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008 All rights reserved. Posted: February 12, 2008.

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