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20 February 2017

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (2008)

Directed by: Bharat Nallauri
Music: Paul Englishby
Starring: Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, 
Lee Pace, Tom Payne, Mark Strong, 
Shirley Henderson, Ciarán Hinds, 
Christina Cole
My husband had an unexpected holiday this past Friday and I decided to play hooky myself; since our son was in school, we could go out for lunch, catch a matinee, and be back home by the time he came back from school. Alas for best laid plans, I woke up to find the universe revolving around me. So instead of lunching outside, I curled up on the couch with a cup of tomato soup and a couple of slices of home-made bread, and asked my husband to look for something appropriately lightweight on Netflix streaming. I wasn't in any mood for a serious film. 

As he was browsing through the available 'comedies' (apparently Kal Ho Na Ho and Dilwale are comedies), we were struck by the title of this film. Both of us had vague recollections of having heard the name before, but we didn't know anything about it; but it starred Frances McDormand, whom we both like, and my husband is in love with Amy Adams (amongst other people), so we settled down to watch the film. 

The setting is London, circa 1939. The war is looming, and Miss Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) has just been thrown out of her job as a governess. Miss Holt at the employment agency has had enough of her: Miss Pettigrew has been thrown out of her last four jobs, and she's very difficult to place. Unfortunately, Miss Pettigrew's manners, morals and courtesy are not a good fit for the world in which she finds herself. Her job, Miss Holt tells her trenchantly, is not to try change her employers, but to adapt herself to them. The spectre of war is upon them and there are no jobs for the asking. Miss Pettigrew may leave.
Miss Pettigrew is homeless, penniless, and desperately hungry. What's more, on the way to the employment agency, she had bumped into a young man and lost her suitcase. All she possesses is the clothes she's wearing. Desperation can make a person do terrible things - when Miss Holt moves away to talk to her assistant about filling a post of social secretary that someone had called about, Miss Pettigrew snatches the card with the address written on it, from Miss Holt's table. 

Armed with the card, Miss Pettigrew takes a chance, and arrives at the address of a Miss Delycia Lafosse. Delycia (Amy Adams) is a beautiful, scatter-brained nightclub singer, who has Hollywood ambitions via the stage.  
Miss Pettigrew, assuming she's been employed to look after Miss Lafosse's son, is extremely put out to realise that the 'son' in question is a buck-naked young man who is one of Delycia's lovers. The vicar's daughter is aghast to realise that she's inadvertently placed herself in 'a den of moral iniquity'. 
However, this is just the beginning. Delycia is sleeping with Philip Goldman (Tom Payne), the son of a theatre producer who's soon putting on a new play; she hopes to be cast as the lead.

She's also having a dalliance with Nick Calderelli (Mark Strong), the owner of the nightclub where she performs and the owner of the luxurious flat. Other than that, there's also Michael Pardue (Lee Pace), she says, with all the airs of an ingénue; Michael, who loves her, but doesn't have a penny to rub together. 
Miss Pettigrew doesn't know what madhouse she's walked into, especially when Delycia begs her help in getting Philip out of the flat before Nick, who's returned unexpectedly, comes up to the flat. 

Miss Pettigrew, who has already lied to the employment agency that Delycia needs no social secretary (when they call up to confirm the time the new hire will be up in London), is pushed willy-nilly into contriving to get Philip out of the door, Nick from meeting him, and Delycia from having to spend time with Nick, with whom she wants to break off, but daren't. 
'He's like a snake,' she tells Miss Pettigrew, 'he hypnotises me.' She wants Miss Pettigrew's help in 'standing strong' - a demand that Delycia completely forgets about the minute Nick walks in. 
By the time she's cleared the apartment of all signs of Philp's presence (including a bra on the chandelier), and marched Nick out of his own apartment, Miss Pettigrew is exhausted. And hungry. However, Delycia has other plans, and without as much as a by your leave, Miss Pettigrew is whisked off into a world of fashion shows, cocktail parties, and the emotional travails of the rich and the not-so-rich. 
Somewhere in the course of 24 hours, Miss Pettigrew will be scandalised by what passes off as fashion (and morals), gain a makeover, not get a bite to eat except two slices of cucumber, meet a fashion designer who's embroiled in a tempestuous relationship with another designer, be blackmailed into setting their relationship right, become friends with Delycia, and manage to salve her conscience for a while until it pops back right up at the most inconvenient time.   

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a period farce that takes a comical look at the mores and manners of high society at the cusp of the Second World War. While remaining light and frothy on the surface, the film is as much a tale about class distinctions, as it is about relationships. Based on a 1938 novel of the same name by Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is both exuberant and entertaining. What's more important, it's a light-hearted female bonding film that's rather rare in these parts.
Amy Adams has - on paper - a very unsympathetic part. 'Delycia Lafosse' is an ambitious woman who's dangling three men on a string, sleeping with two of them for career advancement and personal profit. She could have been a nasty tramp. Adam's Delycia, however, is an ephemeral creature of whimsy, her moods changing in the blink of an eye, driving her lovers to distraction (except Nick, who is unscrupulously using her just as he knows she's using him) and keeping her eye on the main chance. What leavens the character is her kindness; she's loth to really hurt any of them, and does want to balance her ambition with the call of her heart. 'With Nick, I get this magnificent flat; with Phil, I get a chance to be a star; Michael wants to marry me. And with you beside me, I feel strong, firm...'
Adams was absolutely fantastic in the role, with her little wiggles and shivers, and her eyes expressing both wild delight and comical dismay, giving her performance a tinge of a little girl lost. She lends the role the flamboyance that a woman of her role-playing abilities needs, but invests it with a core of a woman who wants to escape her humdrum past and be someone. 
Miss Pettigrew is the perfect foil (and a complete antithesis) to Delycia. She's prim and proper, and is both rigid and old-fashioned in her morals. To say she's shocked to find a naked young man in Delycia's bed would be an understatement. To say that she's completely disapproving of Delycia's lifestyle would be stating the obvious. (It's an affront to her entire upbringing.) But soon after her arrival, she's thrust unwillingly into the role of co-conspirator, as multiple boyfriends make their way in and out of the apartment with annoying regularity, bras hang on chandeliers, and satin robes are thrust under cushions. Remember that all the action in the film is confined to one day. 
Frances McDormand lends an air of seriousness to the role of a put-upon governess, who suddenly becomes Galatea to Delycia's Pygmalion. (She puts the charge on Nick's account.) The transformation is not merely in dress - it is in the way Miss Pettigrew holds herself, the little awestruck smile that sparkles on her face when she first catches sight of herself in the mirror, the shy confidence with which she now interacts with Delycia. Watch her as quickly puffs on a cigarette to send a suspicious Nick off on the wrong scent. Or the scene where she dryly informs Philip (who, upon their second meeting, doesn't recognise her) that they had met before: 'You were entirely naked at the time.' 
She makes as much use of her silences as she does of her dialogues. In a scene where she meets Joe Blumfield (Ciarán Hinds), there's the dawning realisation of her attraction to him, coupled with the knowledge that he is involved with someone else. The scene where she pulls the scarf (one of Joe's design) off her neck - there are a myriad expressions that flit across her face.

The interactions between Guinevere and Delycia (and the others) are a hoot, the dialogue kept crisp and sparkling, and succeeding because of the timing from an excellent cast. Guinevere (at the fashion show: 'She's naked!'
Delycia: 'Hardly! She's got so much whale boning on her I'm looking for a tail and flippers.'  
Michael (who's broken into Nick's apartment to meet Delycia): 'Icepick?'
Delycia: 'It's in the drawer somewhere. Ice in the Frigidair.'
Michael: 'I want the pick for murder, not ice.' 

Guinevere: ' 'Four's a Crowd' is a wonderful movie. Who were you?'
Delycia: 'The crowd!' 
The music played a huge part in moving the action along; Paul Englishby uses a lot of Swing music from the 1930s to set the mood, and arranged and conducted three other songs, including Cole Porter's Anything Goes. Playing in the background, the music is as much of a character in the film, and director Bharat Nallauri uses the songs judicially. The last one, in particular, 'If I didn't care', sung by Amy Adams and Lee Pace is tremulously sweet.  

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a charmingly entertaining comedy of manners. 

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