If the recent period drama Atonement proved a bit of a downer but you liked the setting, perhaps you'll enjoy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Miss Pettigrew is also set in England on the eve of World War II and offers pretty, slinky dresses; a bit of bed-hopping; and lies, lies, lies. But as a parlor comedy, it guarantees both a lighter journey and an uncomplicated, upbeat conclusion.
We meet Miss Pettigrew as she is being fired, again. The frowsy, frizzy-haired middle-aged woman (played convincingly by an unadorned Frances McDormand) wanders about London, hungry, penniless and without a friend.
But a pair of chance encounters will catapult Miss Pettigrew into the glamorous but chaotic life of Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), an American entertainer in need of a social secretary. What Delysia really requires is some clear-eyed guidance to navigate her future, which is entangled with her three lovers: Sugar daddy Nick (Mark Strong) offers a singing gig at his nightclub; theater scion Tom (Phil Goldman) could make her a stage star; and piano man Michael (Lee Pace, from TV's Pushing Daisies) has true love but an uncertain financial future.
As much as Delysia needs a Mary Poppins to restore order, Miss Pettigrew needs a Henry Higgins to transform her from depressed ugly duckling into confident swan. Delysia may be flighty and self-centered, but she's kind-hearted and quickly takes Miss Pettigrew under her stylish, satin-draped wing.
All these life-changing experiences, plus the onset of a world war, take place over a roughly 24-hour period. The first reel is somewhat frantic, but once the various characters are in place, the tone drops to a pleasant, breezy pace. Director Bharat Nalluri keeps the story moving briskly enough that we never quite mind its slightness. Mrs. Pettigrew has the feel of a filmed play, a sensation heightened by placing nearly all the action within four lavishly over-decorated interior sets.
Adams flings herself into Delysia, burbling in a breathy, high-pitched, giggly musical-comedy voice. Adams is most guilty of stylized acting, but, truthfully, her role, as written, borders on caricature. McDormand is, naturally, as solid and reliable as Miss Pettigrew's no-nonsense shoes; she indulges in some comic mugging, but also delivers what little seriousness the story offers. Unlike our Bright Young Things, Miss P. remembers the first war, and how quickly it put an end to silly musicals, impracticable lingerie and a surplus of young men to string along.
This bit of portentous shadowing aside, Mrs. Pettigrew is simply a prettily decorated bon-bon -- a sweet and enjoyable, if insubstantial, riff on maid-to-princess fairy tale. Still, a little sparkly light is welcome during this late-winter gloom.
Starts Fri., March 7.
- Ladies' day: Frances McDormand and Amy Adams