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So fluffy that it threatens to blow off the screen at any moment, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” sustains itself through terrific forward momentum and two glorious star turns by gifted actresses Frances McDormand and Amy Adams.
This is a self-described “fairy tale for adults,” set in a Noel Coward London of 1939 with ornate and spacious flats, actresses of easy virtue, lavish cocktail parties and sophisticated men and women who trade quips (and an occasional punch) with the flick of a cigarette. McDormand’s penniless, middle-age governess crosses paths with Adams’ flighty but ambitious American actress for a mere day, which is enough to transform the lives of both women.
The film, adapted by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy from a newly rediscovered 1939 novel by Winifred Watson, comes at you in a whirlwind of comic coincidences, sentimental yearnings, amorous betrayals and rapid costume changes. The Focus Features release, an enjoyable as it is forgettable, should find enthusiasm among older audiences in specialized venues — those who can either remember 1939 or at least imagine it. A clutch of musical standards from that era by Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Yip Harburg wrap the package in a nostalgic glow.
Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, fired again for a personality clash with her latest employer, hits the streets homeless, broke and dazzlingly disheveled and mousy. Nobody does disheveled and mousy like McDormand. But an extreme makeover is just around the corner. What she first encounters around that corner is Delysia — as in Delicious — Lafosse, Adams’ effervescent take on a Depression-era, self-absorbed actress desperate enough to sleep her way to the top.
As Pettigrew enters a lavishly appointed penthouse for an interview as a “social secretary” — a position for which she has no experience — those sleeping arrangements have tripped Delysia up. The man in her bed, Phil (Tom Payne), a junior impresario about to cast the lead in his next musical, is not the owner of the flat. That would be Nick (Mark Strong), owner of the nightclub where Delysia sings — who is on his way up at that moment.
Pettigrew extricates Delysia from this predicament with such world-weary aplomb that you wonder where these particular skill sets come from. Nevermind, she will continue to work her “magic” during the course of the next 24 hours, providing advice and comfort that place Delysia in the path of true love — that being her besotted pianist Michael (Lee Pace) — while sorting out a broken engagement between fashion industry maven Joe (Ciaran Hinds) and his gold-digging fiancee Edythe (Shirley Henderson). She also finds true love herself.
McDormand is grounded enough in a kind of no-nonsense pragmatism that feels more like “Fargo” than Mayfair that you can totally buy her twinkling-of-an-eye transformation into a savvy social negotiator. Adams more or less reprises her princess from “Enchanted,” only with a beguiling touch of ditzy naughtiness.
The Battle of Britain has been moved up a year so that air raid sirens and bombers rumbling in night sky can provide a “serious” backdrop to this foppish folly. This doesn’t really work, but it causes little harm, either. “Miss Pettigrew” remains a romantic comedy where people break down in the midst of a torch song and the heart finds its way despite ribald distractions.
Bharat Nalluri provides well-paced direction with the lightest of touches, while the respective costume and production designers, Michael O’Connor and Sarah Greenwood.
MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY
A Kudos Pictures/Keylight Entertainment production
Director: Bharat Nalluri
Screenwriters: David Magee, Simon Beaufoy
Based on the novel by: Winifred Watson
Producers: Nellie Bellflower, Stephen Garrett
Executive producer: Paul Webster
Director of photography: John de Borman
Production designer: Sarah Greenwood
Music: Paul Englishby
Co-producer: Kame Frazer
Costume designer: Michael O’Connor
Editor: Barney Pilling
Guinevere Pettigrew: Frances McDormand
Delysia Lafosse: Amy Adams
Michael: Lee Pace
Joe: Ciaran Hinds
Edythe: Shirley Henderson
Nick: Mark Strong
Phil: Tom Payne
Running time — 92 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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