Brit TV director Bharat Nalluri takes a shot at the kind of romantic comedy that all but died with the passing of Ernst Lubitsch in 1947—and if Nalluri falls a little shy of the master, that’s not particularly disgraceful, since neither Billy Wilder quite pulled it off with Love in the Afternoon (1957) nor did Peter Bogdanovich with At Long Last Love (1975). In fact, Nalluri probably comes nearer the mark than his illustrious predecessors.
It may be that Nalluri doesn’t try so hard, or it may have something to do with basing his film on the 1938 novel by Winifred Watson that was reprinted in 2000 to some acclaim for its forward-thinking feminist view. The screenplay—by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy—doesn’t seem like a postmodern period attempt; it feels like the real thing.
The resulting film has a few minor problems—like slapping a 1945 recording of a 1944 song, Johnny Mercer’s “Dream,” in a movie taking place in 1939 and the aesthetically questionable choice of shooting the film in wide-screen—but these are small quibbles. More damaging is Nalluri’s occasional imprecise timing. He manages scenes that are wholly manic quite well. There’s a farce-like sequence early on that scores on every level. And he’s very good at the quieter, more romantic moments. I doubt anyone could have done any better the sequence where Amy Adams sings “If I Didn’t Care,” and the final scene between Frances McDormand and Ciarán Hinds is a gem. But smaller comic scenes are at times just a bit off in both editing and performance—not disastrously, but somehow not quite right either.
The film’s 1939 setting works well, since it allows the madcap high jinks of its tissue-paper plot to be bolstered by the specter of the looming world war. The sun may never set on the British Empire (or so it was thought at the time), but it was definitely setting on England’s “Bright Young Things,” who were capering toward the abyss. This is something the film—and its older characters—realize all too well.
The story finds Guinevere Pettigrew (McDormand), who is possibly the world’s worst governess, out of work, out of money and even out of clothes (except for those on her back). The employment agency has washed its hands of her, so she takes the opportunity of snatching the card for one of their clients, Delysia Lafosse (Adams), whom she supposes is in the market for a governess. Delysia, however, is a kept singer and wannabe actress trying to balance three boyfriends, and is looking for a social secretary—just about the last thing the dowdy Miss Pettigrew would seem to be. However, since Miss Pettigrew effectively handles getting theatrical producer Phil Goldman (TV actor Tom Payne) out of Delysia’s bed and apartment in time to avoid meeting nightclub owner Nick (Mark Strong, Stardust), she gets the job. Miss Pettigrew also gets a complete makeover and becomes effectively glamorous. What she doesn’t get is anything to eat, an idea that serves as the film’s most sublime running gag. (If it doesn’t equal the one involving Edward Everett Horton’s inability to remember who Herbert Marshall is in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932), that’s only because almost nothing does.)
The mechanics of the plot are pretty transparent. Delysia has to choose among three suitors—the feckless producer, the smarmy nightclub owner and her penniless-but-loving pianist, Michael (Lee Pace, Infamous). Guess who she’ll choose? An older man, Joe (Ciarán Hinds)—a famous designer of ladies’ undergarments—takes an interest in Miss Pettigrew even before she becomes glamorous, so it’s no surprise where this leads.
But the transparency of the plot doesn’t really matter. The two leading ladies—along with Hinds and Pace—are so likable that it’s a predetermined ending that we want to see happen. Plus, the trip to that ending is invariably fun, awfully stylish and even touching, making the trip itself what matters. In this kind of movie, that’s as much as one could reasonably wish—and since some of the film’s best moments truly soar, it’s even a little more than that. Rated PG-13 for some partial nudity and innuendo.