Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Movie Information

The Story: An unemployable governess finds a life-transforming position as a social secretary. The Lowdown: Style, wit and likable characters carry the day in this generally lightweight, but not brainless, comedy.
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Director: Bharat Nalluri
Starring: Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Ciarán Hinds, Lee Pace, Shirley Henderson
Rated: PG-13

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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8 thoughts on “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

  1. Ken Hanke

    Having seen this movie twice now — and watched the last hour more than that — I would probably bump it up to 4 1/2 stars. I’ll add that everyone I know who has seen it has liked it — a couple of them into the 5 star realm (quite that far, I won’t go).

  2. Stacey

    Don’t you just wish the film had more of the relatioship with McDormand and Hinds? I was a little impatient with the Adams character, but maybe that was because I was counting the minutes until Hinds reappeared. Then the moments were too fleeting. I loved him in Persuasion and want to see him carry another BIG romantic lead.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Oddly, whenever I think of Hinds, I immediately think of him as M. Firmin in Schumacher’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. I wouldn’t have minded more of him, but I wasn’t displeased with that aspect of the script.

    He is, however, involved in the scene that still bothers me the most — not the scene, but the execution. The scene where Hinds and McDormand dance (“It’s the first time I’ve felt comfortable all day”) is a terrific idea and they’re great in it, but the movement doesn’t flow. It’s too halting — and it seems more so next to the “If I Didn’t Care” number with Adams and Pace. That scene’s also the reason I think maybe widescreen was an unwise choice for the film. I have a feeling the movement would have been smoother in a “flat” film.

  4. Stacey

    Interesting criticism about the dance scene. I mostly remember it for when McDormand said she only knew a walz and the look on both of their faces a moment later when you heard the first beat was just perfect. I haven’t seen Phantom – I will have to get it. But I still think he will always be Captain Wentworth to me.

  5. Stacey

    Oh, you must! You must! I think it is the best film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. (Clueless is a close second.) Every bit of it rings true, there is not one false note. I haven’t seen Keira Knightley’s Pride and Prejudice because I love the BBC version so much, but I do like KK, so I plan to give in one day. I think you liked it, no?

  6. Ken Hanke

    Yes, I was very pleasantly surprised by Joe Wright’s version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE with Keira Knightley.

  7. Ken Hanke

    For the interested: MISS PETTIGREW exits area theaters after Thursday, April 10.

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