"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

It is extremely difficult to recreate the screwball comedies of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Just ask George Lucas (Radioland Murders) and the Coen brothers (The Hudsucker Proxy), both of whom paid tribute to that era and were met with critical and commercial disdain. Contemporary mainstream audiences are no longer interested in comedies that blend farcical situations with fast-paced, often witty repartee. To paraphrase filmmaker Kevin Smith (whose dialogue often emulates that of screwball comedies), the masses are interested in dick and fart jokes, which explains the popularity of Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and his contemporaries. There are very few examples of successful attempts to recreate the screwball comedy of the ‘30s and ‘40s and you’d be hard-pressed to find any that were commercial hits (notable exceptions being Victor/Victoria and Mel Brooks’ remake of To Be or Not To Be).

Perhaps one of the best examples in recent memory is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008), an adaptation of the 1938 novel of the same name by Winifred Watson. The film is a charming romantic comedy but at its heart lies the friendship between two women: a flighty American singer/actress and her English social secretary. Much of the film’s humor is derived from the culture clash between them and the romantic entanglements that the latter attempts to extricate the former from. Despite the presence of popular actress Amy Adams and Academy Award winner Frances McDormand, Miss Pettigrew received generally favorable reviews but failed to connect with mainstream movie-going audiences, performing poorly at the box office. However, this does not reflect the quality of the film only how out of step it is with contemporary attitudes and trends.

Known as “the governess of last resort,” Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is dismissed from her latest job and sent out into the cold, foreboding London streets where she wanders for hours trying to figure out what to do next. These early scenes demonstrate Frances McDormand’s lack of vanity as Pettigrew looks frumpy and disheveled as her character is dressed in drab earth tones while she sports unkempt frizzy hair. While trying unsuccessfully to get another job, Pettigrew overhears about an aspiring American actress in need of a social secretary. Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) is, to put it mildly, a handful. Juggling three different lovers and enjoying being young and rich (perhaps a little too much) in London on the eve of World War II, her life is a chaotic mess.

Their first meeting is a whirlwind sequence as Pettigrew attempts to rouse Phil Goldman (Tom Payne), a.k.a. lover #1, from Delysia’s bed before Nick (Mark Strong), a.k.a. lover #2, shows up. This scene establishes the film’s witty banter as Pettigrew tells Delysia about her encounter with Phil: “I fear that I have outraged his sense of propriety,” to which the clueless young woman replies, “Oh no, Phil doesn’t have one of those.” This sequence also demonstrates the excellent comic timing of Adams and McDormand as their characters race around making the apartment look presentable while also getting rid of Phil all before Nick arrives. The two actresses play well of each other with the free-spirited Delysia in sharp contrast to the prim and proper Pettigrew.

The first thing Delysia does is take her to a lingerie fashion show where Pettigrew becomes enamored with lingerie designer Joe Blomfield (Ciaran Hinds) who is involved in a tempestuous relationship with salon owner Edythe Dubarry (Shirley Henderson). The gradually emerging romance between Joe and Pettigrew is the film’s most charming subplot and by the film’s end we want to see further adventures of these two characters. Edythe and Delysia team up to give Pettigrew a complete makeover so that she no longer looks like a dowdy bag lady.

Eventually we meet Michael Pardue (Lee Pace), a poor pianist and lover #3. He and Delysia are also in a cabaret act together but he has grown tired of competing with Phil and Nick for her affections and plans to set sail to New York City on the Queen Mary in the morning with or without her. Delysia must look into her heart and decide which man she wants to be with: Phil, the son of a powerful theater producer, Nick, a mean-spirited nightclub owner, or Michael.

At the time of its release, Amy Adams was criticized for playing yet another energetic, dimwitted character but in this case it is an unfair assessment. While Delysia is no rocket scientist, she isn’t really that dumb, just indecisive and Adams does a nice job of conveying her character’s bundle of conflicted emotions. The young actress is her usual charming, irrepressible self and it’s hard not to root for her. Adams gives us glimpses of Delysia without the energetic façade to reveal a young woman afraid of being who she really is to those that mean the most to her.

Frances McDormand has the more difficult role because it is less showy and so she has to work harder to stand out from the more flamboyant Adams. The veteran actress brings a quiet dignity to Pettigrew as well as worldly experience, which McDormand suggests during the brief, calm interludes when her character imparts some words of wisdom to Delysia. As she briefly demonstrated in Raising Arizona (1987), McDormand has wonderful comedic chops, which she conveys with amusing facial expressions when reacting to something outrageous Adams has said or done.

Mark Strong has the thankless task of playing yet another bad guy. He does it so well, which is why he keeps getting cast in these roles. He serves his purpose as an impediment to Delysia’s happiness. To his credit, Strong refuses to resort to a cartoonish caricature and gives Nick a kind of reptilian charm that is fun to watch. Lee Pace has the dashing romantic leading man shtick down cold but he’s no doorstop and doesn’t make things easy for Delysia. Michael’s ultimatum forces her to make a decision about the men in her life. The obvious chemistry between them makes you root for these two crazy characters to wind up together. It’s also great to see underrated character Ciaran Hinds playing Pettigrew’s suave, potential love interest. Like McDormand, he underplays his role and the scenes he has with her are some of the strongest in the film. They provide a respite from the madcap antics as they play two people bound by societal rules and are yearning to break free of them.

Miss Pettigrew features several lovely moments that resonate, like when Michael and Delysia perform “If I Didn’t Care” (which was an international hit for The Ink Spots at the time) together and the story stops for a moment as we are treated to a shared moment between two characters who convey their love for each other through song. There are some moving reaction shots of the principal characters reflecting on the lyrics that are being sung and how the tune reminds them of their feelings for a special someone. They feel it and so do we.

One of the film’s pleasant surprises is the elegant direction of Bharat Nalluri, a British television director by trade who unfortunately has The Crow: Salvation (2000) on his resume. Fortunately, his work on Miss Pettigrew makes one quickly forget that he was ever a part of that debacle as he gives this film a classy, retro touch. He also brings a refreshing economy of style, wisely letting the actors’ performances and the well-written screenplay to do all the heavy lifting. He’s also smart enough to wrap it all up in an attractive package thanks to Sarah Greenwood’s production design and Nick Gottschalk’s art direction. The attention to period detail is fantastic, from the cars, clothes and architecture that immerse us completely in ‘30s era London. One only has to look at Delysia’s stunningly decorated apartment, or Nick’s Art Deco style nightclub, to see the great lengths the filmmakers went to get the period details just right.

Published in 1938, Winifred Watson wrote Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and several other books about women transforming their lives while also addressing class differences and extramarital sex. Her novels were popular and well-received by critics but during WWII she phased out her writing career because of a commitment to her husband and newborn son. Hollywood soon came calling and Universal Studios optioned the rights to Miss Pettigrew with plans to adapt it into a musical with popular movie star Billie Burke as Miss Pettigrew. However, the war prompted Universal to focus on serious films instead.

Miss Pettigrew was rediscovered and reprinted in 2000 to critical acclaim. Producer Stephen Garrett read the book and found it to be “extraordinarily uplifting, completely captivating, and life-affirming.” He optioned the film rights and was introduced to fellow producer Nellie Bellflower. He had her read the book, which she enjoyed so much that she agreed to team-up with Garrett to bring the novel to the big screen. In fact, it was Bellflower who first thought of Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew. She gave the book to the actress’ managers. They all loved it and McDormand wanted to play the title role even without a director attached or a screenplay written.

Screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland) read the book and fell in love with Delysia and Pettigrew. The book reminded him of “classic movies from that era, those wonderful romantic comedies where you feel for the characters but there’s also an energetic pace and a lightness of spirit.” Bellflower was able to get Focus Features to finance the film and also brought Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) on board as a second screenwriter. After directing the miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath (2006), Nalluri wanted to do something more life-affirming. He had worked with Garrett on it and also the popular British caper television show Hustle. However, the producers didn’t really see Nalluri as a right fit for Miss Pettigrew but after meeting with him, they were impressed with his knowledge of the time period the film was set in. The story originally took place in 1938 and Nalluri suggested changing it to the day that World War II broke out. “That became our magical day, which was great in terms of drama and theatricality and an over-the-top quality.”

McDormand was so determined to play Pettigrew that she stuck with the project through years of development. The producers saw many young actresses for the role of Delysia and found the right person with Amy Adams, impressed with her work in Junebug (2005) and Enchanted (2007). She really responded to Delysia and also jumped at the chance to work with McDormand, someone she greatly admired. The two actresses got on famously right from the first script reading and, according to Nalluri, “it set the whole tone of the film – and the style we shot it in.”

Nalluri maintained a relaxed atmosphere on the set as well as a collaborative feel so that everyone felt they were working on something special. He prepared thoroughly for every day of shooting so he would be able to work with the actors more closely. He shot the film over seven weeks, recreating 1939 London on location and at the legendary Ealing Studios with the considerable help of cinematographer John de Borman (The Full Monty) and production designer Sarah Greenwood (Atonement). For inspiration, they looked at several photographers, like Yevonde Cumbers, a famous London shutterbug known for a stylized kind of full-color graphics. De Borman decided to eschew the traditional period look for a lot of color and not overlight scenes or soften the lenses in order to achieve the fairy tale look they wanted. Delysia’s apartment was built at Ealing Studios in the style of period decorators Dorothy Draper and William Haines. For location shooting in London, the filmmakers sought out places that could be affordably transformed back to the ‘30s, like South London’s Rivoli Ballroom, which was made to resemble an authentic speakeasy, or, like the ballroom at the Savoy Hotel, a location that looked like it did back then.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day received general favorable reviews from critics. In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Without Ms. Adams’s presence, who knows what Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day might have been. As it stands, the movie, directed by Bharat Nalluri from a screenplay by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy, is an example of how a little nothing of a story can be inflated into a little something of a movie with perfect casting, dexterous tonal manipulation and an astute eye and ear for detail.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday wrote, “But the film's flaws are nothing compared with the pleasures it offers, chiefly in its unapologetic pursuit of old-fashioned sweetness and romance.” In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris had problems with Amy Adams’ performance but enjoyed what Frances McDormand and Ciaran Hinds brought to the table: “Making an audience almost laugh when it wants to cry requires a delicate acting skill possessed by very few performers. Indeed, the fragile subtlety of the pas de deux of Ms. McDormand and Mr. Hinds is alone worth the price of admission.” The Los Angeles Times’ Carina Chocano wrote, “Adams is amazingly adept at playing smart playing dumb – there's more to her flaky actress than meets the eye. Opposites yet kindred spirits, Adams and McDormand make a great pair as a couple of women living by their wits during a particularly hysterical moment in history.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “Wisely cast, this handsome production is a delightful farcical fairy tale, bolstered by moments of depth and emotion.” In her review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Ruthe Stein wrote, “Director Bharat Nalluri gives Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day the patina of a film actually made in the 1930s, when audiences couldn't get enough of the lifestyles of the rich. The movie has a lightness and smoothness to it – like one of Delysia's satin gowns.”

However, in her review for the Village Voice, Ella Taylor wrote, “What passes for plot is cocktail parties in floor-length Deco gowns, interrupted by the occasional German bomb and the obligatory shopping excursion in which Miss P. gets her extreme makeover and gently instructs her confused young boss in basic self-respect.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, in contrast, thinks secrets are quite naughty, in a nursery way. But they're also kind of cute, in a British tweedle-dee-dee way.” In his review for the Boston Globe, Wesley Morris wrote, “It's a polished-looking movie, but all that pizzazz is put to monotonously shallow ends. It would take a star of steroidal proportions to jazz this movie up. If dour Miss Pettigrew does indeed live for a day, good for her. That's 24 hours longer than this movie seems to.”

It is refreshing to see a film with a friendship between two women at its heart. Delysia doesn’t treat Pettigrew as a servant to be ordered around but more like a partner in crime or, in many respects, an equal. Miss Pettigrew could have so easily been a poor attempt to resurrect the period screwball comedy and come across as the cinematic equivalent of a wax museum: a superficial facsimile of the real thing. However, it is the winning, heartfelt performances of Adams and McDormand, along with the friendship between their characters that transcends the film from being merely a homage to classic Hollywood cinema. It reminds us of what made the best films from that era so good and that it is possible to recapture that magic.


Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day Production Notes. 2008


  1. I remember the trailer for this one and thought I'd like to take it in. But, it didn't stay out long and I soon forgot about it. Great to hear it's worth watching (plus I'm a growing admirer of Mark Strong's work). I think I can get my wife to screen it with me, too. It's in the Netflix queue, now. Thanks, J.D.

  2. Wow. This is a freakishly-thorough review. Very impressive, and you've convinced me to try to make this one of my last Netflix dvd rentals. All our prices are gonna get jacked up in the next week or so, so now's the time. Cheers! =)

  3. le0pard13:

    Yeah, sadly the film was not as popular as it should have been. I think it is a pretty entertaining film with some fantastic performances from the entire cast. A lovely homage to Classic Hollywood Cinema as well.


    Heh, thanks for the kind words!

    Incidentally, this was my last DVD rental from Netflix also before I made the switch over to streaming exclusively. Be curious to know what you thought of this film.

  4. I saw this over the holiday weekend with my wife and loved it. Last year, my favorite older 'couple' was Helen Mirren and Brian Cox from RED. This year, it's Frances McDormand and Ciaran Hinds from this. Thanks again for the review and recommendation, J.D.

  5. This one came and went at my local multiplex in ... I was going to say the blink of an eye, but even that suggests I might have got a chance to see it on the big screen. It wasn't so much released as it dissipated! For some reason, I'd not got round to catching it on DVD. That changes! Thanks for another terrific article and a reminder that I need to catch up with this movie.

  6. le0pard13:

    Glad to see you dug this film. It has loads of charm and is a fun film, esp. if you're in the mood for some escapist fare.

    Neil Fulwood:

    Yeah, such a shame that this film didn't get more exposure, esp. with someone like Amy Adams starring who is quite popular. I hope you get a chance to check it out.

  7. excellent write-up! as a big fan of screwball comedies, this one turned out to be a nice surprise.

  8. Cinema Du Meep:

    Awesome! Good to see another fan of this film. Thanks for the comments.