“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”

Don't let this delightfully frothy drawing-room comedy get lost between the sofa cushions.

Topics: Movies,

"Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day"

There are so many movies jockeying for our attention these days that a slender pleasure like Bharat Nalluri’s drawing-room comedy “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” could all too easily slip between the sofa cushions. The picture falls far short of perfection: It doesn’t pop and sparkle as much as it needs to. Nalluri — who has worked mostly in television — doesn’t have as much control over the material as he might: This story, set between the two world wars, of an unemployed governess who changes several lives (one of them her own) in the course of a single day is joyously exaggerated and exuberant, but sometimes it’s a little too heavy on its feet. The jokes and gags hit too squarely; the movie conspicuously lacks a light touch.

But “Miss Pettigrew” is also one of those rare cases where a filmmaker’s good intentions, and the enthusiasm of his actors, are enough to fill in the cracks. Based on a 1938 novel by the English author Winifred Watson (the book was republished in 2000 by Persephone Books), the movie, which was shot by John de Borman, with production design by Sarah Greenwood, has a pleasingly retro look and feel: A lingerie fashion show takes place in the kind of pink, cream and gilt ballroom that’s all but disappeared in the era of hip boutique hotels; the movie’s female characters are draped in satin robes and crepe dresses that move differently than modern fabrics do. The picture is authentically period without feeling stale or stuffy.

And the story is nothing more than a meringue, an appealing little idea that’s been whipped into a froth by screenwriters David Magee and Simon Malfoy: The Miss Pettigrew of the title, played by Frances McDormand, is a governess who keeps losing her posts — the prim head of her employment agency decrees that she’s a “governess of last resort.” Desperate for a job, especially after spending a night, hungry and anxious, wandering the streets, she insinuates herself into a position that’s intended for someone else, becoming social secretary to a cutie-pie American cabaret singer named Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), who needs all the help she can get in order to keep her three suitors straight: There’s Nick (Mark Strong), the slick nightclub owner who foots the bill for her apartment and smart clothes; Phil (Tom Payne), a boyish impresario-in-training who may be able to further her career; and Michael (Lee Pace), the charming young pianist who is clearly her one true love.

Mary Poppins-like, Miss Pettigrew drops into the scene and surveys it crisply, getting down to the business of setting wayward love affairs back on track. She herself becomes involved in the tormented relationship between Joe, a dashing lingerie designer (played, in a delightfully improbable bit of casting that works, by the Irish actor Ciarán Hinds), and Edythe Dubarry, an icy-chic boutique owner (the wonderful Shirley Henderson, who wields a Bakelite cigarette holder as if she were born to do so). In the course of a day, Miss Pettigrew is transformed from a nervous bird in a drab brown dress into an appealing, realistically attractive middle-aged woman, one whose common sense is so vibrant that it practically throws off an erotic charge.

“Miss Pettigrew” isn’t quite a farce — it’s too gentle-spirited for that, and its wit doesn’t cut very deep. But there are moments of seriousness flashing through its frivolity: At one point Miss Pettigrew and Joe, having taken time out from a party, pause as a group of bombers thunder through the skies above them, a reminder of the war they know is inevitable. “You don’t remember the last one,” she says to him, a comment that isn’t phrased as a question but that nonetheless poses one. “No. I don’t,” he responds, and the moment is left hanging between them, a mystery that’s resolved in a lovely sequence later in the movie.

McDormand and Hinds are marvelous together, not least because their unusual, strong-featured faces are so well-matched: There’s nothing halfway or indecisive about either of these faces; they’re expressive and alive every instant. Adams’ Delysia, on the other hand, is dithery and parakeet-like, and in her early scenes she comes off as too cartoonish even for a movie as stylized as this one is. But even she eventually settles into the picture, as if she were snuggling into a lush fur wrap: Her character (and the performance) becomes less manic and more touching. “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” is a picture about transformation and finding true love, which, depending on your viewpoint, are either staid, overcooked themes or classical ones. But either way, the movie’s simplicity is its strong suit: It never pretends to be more than it is. Miss Pettigrew’s life is changed in small ways when she dons a new dress in a flattering color and trades her flyaway mouse tresses for a cap of curls. But the real change she undergoes is hardly cosmetic. Watching McDormand navigate that transformation is the kind of thing that can keep your hope in movies, and in actors, alive.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>