The most accurate way I can describe my feelings about Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is by gushing that it's just so dear. It's darling. It's funny, tender and charming. It's a Cinderella story for adults who want a movie that's not ridiculously cheesy or stupid. It's gloomy in spots but always quickly uplifted, either through the toe-tapping music of the 1930s or the silly wit of the writing. After an awards season in which the most acclaimed movies were across-the-board bleak (with the exception of Juno), Miss Pettigrew is a breath of fresh air.
We are introduced to Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) as she is fired from yet another governess position and shuffles her way to the agency that has found her each of her ill-fated jobs. When the stern agency woman refuses to find Miss Pettigrew more work, she grows desperate, having no money and no home. She swipes the business card of a client in need of a social secretary: the American cabaret singer Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams). She arrives at the sprawling London flat to Delysia frantically trying to get rid of one man before another man comes home. Immediately Miss Pettigrew proves herself a helpful ally, smoothly navigating Guinevere's potentially disastrous dealings with the several men in her life. In this way, the title of the film seems like it could be Miss Pettigrew Saves the Day, but things get a little bit more complex than just this, so read more.
In the arrangement the women swiftly fall into, everyone wins: Miss Pettigrew helps to sort out Delysia's complicated personal matters and gently shows her what's most important in life. Miss Pettigrew herself obtains both a sense of self-worth and a glimpse into the dashing, glamorous life of the wealthy. She is also introduced to a handsome lingerie-maker her own age who, despite the nubile young women around him, finds himself drawn to Miss Pettigrew's maturity and honest nature.
The pairing of the two women, however, is what makes this film pure satisfaction to watch. The humble, gentle Miss Pettigrew on her own might be a somewhat one-note character without the wriggly, shimmery Delysia Lafosse. Yet, lest Delysia's silliness get to be a bit too much, there are many sobering references to the imminent war, often revealing the great divide between Guinevere and Delysia's generations. Guinevere wearily recalls the previous war while Delysia is distracted by mannequins wearing gas masks in a store window — not because of the gas masks, mind you, but the "hideous" cap sleeves on the mannequins' dresses.
The entirety of the action takes place in one day, which makes for one incredibly eventful 24-hour span. But such is life with Delysia Lafosse, played with that wide-eyed beauty and energy that we're starting to expect from Amy Adams. I predict some people will grow tired of Adams' endless chattiness and blithe innocence but I'm perfectly happy to sit back and watch her light up the screen with her sparkling presence. She is a natural-born entertainer, of the old-fashioned, all-smiles, song-and-dance variety. In this way, she slips easily into the role of an aspiring actress in 1939, and we willingly give her all our attention.
There's a lot going on in this film. Lessons on true love and compromising one dream to attain another. The theme that a woman can do anything if she puts her mind to it. The incredibly refreshing message that love knows no age. The whole, "be yourself and love will find you" thing. And yet it never feels overwrought or cheese-filled. It may be a lot at once, but I loved it all.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features