Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a screwball comedy playing out beneath a looming shadow. No matter how effervescently perky Amy Adams is, no matter how adorable Lee Pace is, no matter how charming the rest of the cast is, the darkness is always there, waiting to swallow them all.
It’s an odd way to conduct a comedy, particularly one of this genre, and it doesn’t always work. The tonal shifts are often awkward, leaving madcap passages slight and solemn passages overearnest, but in a few scenes, Miss Pettigrew manages to span the chasm between giddy and sober. For a moment or two, the movie, set in London on the brink of World War II, feels eerily contemporary and poignant and special.
Frances McDormand plays sternly virtuous Guinevere Pettigrew, the character who sees the darkness most clearly. Chronically unemployed as a governess, Miss Pettigrew desperately seizes the opportunity to become social secretary to a ditzy but ambitious young actress, Delysia Lafosse (Adams). Delysia needs all the help she can get juggling her various lovers: Nick (Mark Strong), the shady nightclub owner who provides her lavish apartment and cabaret gig; Phil (Tom Payne), the fledgling impresario following his father into the theater business and promising her the lead in his new musical; and Michael (Pace), her devoted accompanist, who can promise nothing but his piano-playing, a ticket to New York, and his sincere affection. Meanwhile Miss Pettigrew catches the eye of Joe (Ciarán Hinds), the other true grown-up in the room, a lingerie designer who seems to have tired of the mind games of his on-again-off-again fiancée Edythe (Shirley Henderson) and the capricious world they inhabit together.
Over the course of a single day and night, both Miss Pettigrew and Delysia’s lives transform in the expected ways, and it all might have been rather dull were it not for the smoothly witty, appealing performances from the lead actresses (not to mention the others on screen). The screenplay forces McDormand to soften the prim moralizing a bit too quickly to be completely convincing, but she retains enough of the governess sensibility to keep her evolving character unified. Miss Pettigrew is the sort of character who perceives more than those around her, and McDormand beautifully captures that wisdom: watching her watch Delysia’s escapades is a treat because you can see the tumult of shock, amusement, worry, fondness, exasperation, and shrewd judgment in her eyes on her otherwise composed face.
Adams (who, between this and her star-making turn in Enchanted, seems to have cornered the marked on giddy girliness) showcases her superb comic timing and versatility, drawing hoots of laughter with physical comedy, one-liners, and her exquisitely expressive face. What’s more, she accomplishes the neat trick of making Delysia’s blithe amorality feel naïve rather than mercenary. We can see why Miss Pettigrew wants her to be happy.
Those two characters are such fun that it’s a shame that director Bharat Nalluri can’t seem to leave them alone more often. I’m not looking for still, naturalistic shots with this sort of movie, but the pointless hyperactivity of Nalluri’s camera drove me crazy. I particularly hate when it rapidly circles a character—a stunt that surely is meant to convey intensity but that Nalluri uses too many times to be effective. Besides, it isn’t ever necessary. Adams’ lovely rendition of “If I Didn’t Care,” in particular, conveys everything it needs to without the dizzying cinematic shenanigans.
Some of the best moments are the simple, quiet ones. The preview gave away most of the funniest bits, so the surprises were the gentle, tender scenes, the dark ones. I won’t soon forget the sequence in which the Royal Air Force flies overhead and everyone at Delysia’s party runs to the balcony to cheer them on, excitedly anticipating the coming clash with Germany—everyone, that is, but Joe and Miss Pettigrew, older than the others, who stay where they are and stare glumly at their feet. “They don’t remember the last one,” Miss Pettigrew murmurs, not a note of condemnation in her tone, just the sadness of someone who knows through cruel experience that there is nothing glorious, nothing sweet and fitting, about even the most righteous and necessary of wars.
Maybe all screwball comedies are like Miss Pettigrew, deep down. Maybe underneath all silliness, all eating and drinking and merriment, is the sense that it is transitory, that tomorrow we die. I wish Nalluri and his screenwriters had found a way to better develop that idea, to better integrate the humor with their timeless fable. You can see traces of what might have been in McDormand’s beautiful performance, but the movie itself feels bipolar, careening from slapstick to sentiment without really knowing how to tie it all together.