Revisiting movies genres from yesteryear is harder than it looks. Sometimes you cast the film just right, get the look of the period down to a tee and even manage to recreate the story elements as well. And yet, it all falls flat. (See this week’s Leatherheads for an example…on second thought, don’t.) Other times, all the pieces fall together, in a seemingly effortless manner, and filmgoers are transported back in time and treated to a dose of movie magic from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day is such a film, a light-hearted romp that could have easily been a vehicle for Carole Lombard, Greer Garson, and Ronald Coleman had it been made in the ‘30s, when the film is set. Fortunately, three modern actors capture the nuances needed to pull off a film of this sort, never winking at the camera over the script’s dated notions, yet injecting the material with a sense of sincerity that makes it worthwhile.
Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is down on her luck. Fired from one governess position after another, the poor homeless woman can’t remember the last time she’s eaten. Unfortunately, she’s not alone as the Great Depression still has a vice grip on the populace of London and these desperate times call for desperate measures. So, Pettigrew steals a lead from the temp agency she frequents and winds up at the apartment of American chanteuse Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams, the most adorable actress working in film today), young lady who’ll do anything, and I mean anything, to make it big in show business. Currently, she’s living in a posh apartment paid for by club owner Nick Colderelli (Mark Strong), who beds her when she pleases. He doesn’t know that Delysia’s rolling in the hay with Phillip Goldman (Tom Payne), a young producer who has promised her the lead role in his next production, in exchange for certain favors. Then, there’s Michael (Lee Pace), the pianist who accompanies her when she sings at Nick’s club. He’s her one true love but Delysia’s put off by his lack of money and prospects.
As you can imagine, Delysia’s juggling act reaches a critical juncture and that’s when Miss Pettigrew comes into play. Thinking on her feet, she’s able to navigate the young woman out of one sticky situation after the next, as her lovers are on the brink of finding out about one another. A party later that evening promises more dramatics as Phillip will be holding a soiree at Nick’s club to announce whose gotten the lead in his new show, while poor Michael is merely an onlooker.
The movie moves at a breakneck pace as befits its genre roots. The screwball comedy is a tricky exercise to pull off, as perfect timing is necessary in executing its terse dialogue and madcap situations. The cast is up to the task here, tackling this material with great enthusiasm and never forcing their lines or telegraphing their intentions. There’s a spontaneity to this madness and it results in a movie that’s great fun.
What really makes the film special, however, is a subplot that emerges involving Pettigrew and Joe Blumfield (Ciaran Hinds), a fashion designer who runs with a younger crowd and who’s engaged to a gold-digging harpy (Shirley Henderson). These two make an instant connection, sensing in each other a degree of melancholy that only suffering a great tragedy can impart. Their understanding of each other is immediate and the relationship that grows between these kindred souls is heartfelt and wholly satisfying.
McDormand’s scenes with Hinds provide the film with a mature love story, the likes of which we rarely see these days, and a well-earned sense of poignancy.
As Miss Pettigrew says at the end of her whirlwind 24 hours with Delysia, “What a day it’s been!” and a similar sentiment could be said about this movie. A breath of fresh air, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, proves to be a pleasant surprise amidst the overblown, empty fodder that Hollywood consistently cranks out. There’s a sincerity here that’s impossible to ignore while the charm of its two leads make it impossible to resist.
Now playing at select movies theaters in Champaign and Savoy
1h 32min — Rated PG-13 — Comedy/Drama