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Friday Film Review: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Grade: C

This is a movie I wanted to love, yearned to love, and hoped to love. Unfortunately, I didn’t. First, some background. Back around 2003, a friend of mine who lived in Berkshire at the time, told me about a wonderful bookstore she found in London called Persephone Books. After checking out their website, I asked my friend to get a few books for me, one of which was “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.” I first read it in 2004 and adored it. When I heard a movie was to be done of it, I was excited. However, when I first saw it, something just wasn’t right and reluctantly I graded it a C. Recently I thought about it again and decided to give it another try hoping that going into it with slightly lowered expectations might allow me to enjoy it for what it is. Second time around and I still feel the same but now I think I understand better what went wrong for me.

Miss Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a near middle aged spinster who has just been – unfairly she thinks – fired from yet another governess position. When she goes to the employment agency to try for another post, she’s told in no uncertain terms that she’s not fit for anything they have and to please go away. She overhears about a position at the LaFosse household and, in desperation, steals the card and presents herself there as having just been sent from the agency. What she finds is that she is not dealing with children but rather a ditzy wannabe starlet whose life is a mess. Delysia LaFosse (Amy Adams) is juggling three men (Mark Strong, Lee Pace, Tom Payne) in her life while she tries to land the lead in a West End musical which she thinks will launch her Hollywood career. Miss Pettigrew quickly steps in and begins to arrange Delysia and the people in her life who include Edythe (Shirley Henderson) and her fiance Joe (Ciaran Hinds). But when she thinks Delysia is throwing away true love for a chance at fame, Miss Pettigrew offers some sage advice which just might end up giving her a shot at a HEA she never saw coming.

Watching “Miss Pettigrew” for a second time it finally dawned on me that neither of the lead actresses work for me until more than halfway into the movie. Usually accents aren’t a deal breaker for me but Frances McDormand’s English accent always sounded off. I couldn’t stop thinking “This is McDormand using a fake accent.” I loved how she sounded in “Fargo” but here it seemed like she needed a few more lessons with her accent coach. She’s also supposed to be swept into a fairy tale going from almost living on the streets to the heady lifestyle of the Bright Young Things in late 1930s London – all in one day. But McDormand makes Pettigrew too clunky, too much a stick in the mud and I can always tell she’s acting. I never get carried away in the fantasy because for the most part, she doesn’t.

As for Adams, I love her in “Enchanted,” liked her a lot in “Leap Year” and “Sunshine Cleaning” but here she’s too frantic. Trying too hard to be screwball and not quite pulling it off. Her performance in the first half of the film felt forced instead of effortless. I could see her acting too. The role needed a Carole Lombard or a Marilyn Monroe. I’m not sure if another director could have gotten the delicate balance out of Adams that the part needs but I didn’t feel the madcap.

For both of them, their performances didn’t click for me until the second half when the film shifts to a more serious note. It’s when Miss Pettigrew tells of her lost love who died in the trenches of WWI in France and Delysia confesses how scared she is of making the wrong choices and loosing what little she really has that I felt anything for their characters. But then this also pretty much puts the kibosh on the fairy tale feel the film should be maintaining until the end.

There are elements of the film and actors who do work for me. The costumes are fabulous, especially Delysia’s French silk knickers. The sets are lovely Art Deco and the London locations are fab. The music is well chosen and used. I also love the cars. Shirley Henderson is great as the brittle and vindictive Edythe. Mark Strong, who I would love to see in more sympathetic roles, does his usual slightly sleazy gangster. I can see his character becoming a black marketeer in the war to come. Ciaran Hinds is lovely as the designer of ladies lingerie who recognizes in Miss Pettigrew a kindred soul. It was their scenes together that sparkled for me.

This film needs to float by like a soap bubble. It needs to sparkle and draw viewers into a magical world where a down on her luck spinster really can come alive and truly “live for a day.” Instead, it felt creaky and lumbering to me. My feelings after seeing it a second time matched those I had after the first viewing – oh, what it could have been. Regardless of how you feel about the movie, if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and read the book. It really is delightful.

~Jayne

I’m going to include buy links for the book.

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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

29 Comments

  1. library addict
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 05:11:39

    I liked this film when I saw it, but it was one I thought I’d never rewatch so I didn’t bother getting the DVD. It was the first film I saw Amy Adams in and I remember thinking I liked her performance the best.

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  2. Jayne
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 05:43:10

    @library addict: Had I liked it better, I might have bought it if only for the relationship between Guinevere and Joe but now that I’ve seen it again and had my original impression confirmed, even that part of it isn’t enough for me.

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  3. Ros
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 05:49:32

    I saw this film when I was desperately sad and homesick in America, so my response probably wasn’t in any way rational, but I loved it. I am a huge Shirley Henderson fan, so it was a treat for me to see her. I don’t remember having problems with the accents, but I might have been inured to American attempts at British accents by then. And I haven’t read the book, but now I’m eager to try it.

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  4. Amy Kathryn
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 06:02:21

    I enjoyed it enough when I rented it but agree that I had no plans to rewatch or buy it for my collection. I really liked the costumes and settings and that can go a long way for me (Burlesque comes to mind but I had to buy that one because of the addition of great musical numbers).

    I had no idea it was based on a book. It is now on its way from the library, thanks!

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  5. Jayne
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 06:17:26

    @Ros: The clothes are fabulous. And I love Shirley Henderson too. Have you seen her in a modern interpretation of “The Taming of the Shrew?” It’s part of the ShakespeaRe-Told series.

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  6. Jayne
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 06:18:24

    @Amy Kathryn: I’ve added buy links for the book for anyone interested. It’s also available as an audio book at Persephone Books.

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  7. Maya
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 08:15:52

    If you want Mark Strong in a more heroic role, he plays Mr. Knightley in the Kate Beckinsale adaptation of “Emma”. He’s not my personal favorite in the role (I’ve got a thing for Jeremy Northam), but my college roommate, who is EXTREMELY picky about her Austen adaptations, thinks he’s the best Knightley in any version.

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  8. srs
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 08:23:06

    The book is one of my old fashioned comfort reads, but I agree that the movie is eminently forgettable. Adding my voice to those recommending the book over the movie. Plus, the Persephone Press cover is lovely.

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  9. Hannah E.
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 08:36:17

    I love this movie. It just works for me. I really love the performances and thought the casting choices were perfect. I actually prefer the movie to the book, because the character of Miss Pettigrew as portrayed in the book has lost much of her relevance for modern readers.

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  10. Christine
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 09:28:16

    I enjoyed the movie when I saw it at the theatre but I haven’t read the book so I had no expectations going into it. For me, Guinevere and Joe were the heart of the movie and made it for me. Their romance was just lovely, touching and genuine. The scenes where each of them react to the oncoming war (having lived through the horror of the last one) compared to the reactions of the younger generation is heartbreaking.
    The problem I had is that Delysia is such a shallow heroine. I know we are meant to feel sorry for her but the truth is she is basically prostituting herself for an apartment and a shot at a West End show. I don’t ever feel she cares at all about two of the three men she is sleeping with (and they clearly don’t care about her). That alone keeps it from being light and frothy. It got to the point where I didn’t know what Lee Pace saw in her.

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  11. Kelly (KKJ)
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 09:34:34

    I’d give a B, but mostly because of Lee Pace and Ciarin Hinds and the seriously under-rated Mark Strong. Brilliant casting all around.

    The trailer had all the sparkly fun, and they just couldn’t seem to sustain it. There were some good bits in the deleted scenes that might have helped.

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  12. Claudia Dain
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 09:44:47

    I haven’t read the book so this story in movie form was new to me, and I loved it. I actually saw it twice in the theater! My husband at my side each time, loving it as much as I did. For me, Delysia showed the dark side of screwball, the vulnerable underbelly of the pain in those old screwball comedic roles. In the Carole Lombard screwball, My Man Godfrey, the film does have a defter touch than Pettigrew, but Lombard’s character in that film is essentially tragic. I thought the Pettigrew film dealt with that type of heroine more honestly. I also loved the mother/daughter bond that developed between Delysia and Pettigrew; they needed each other and they shared a bond based on lost love that wasn’t apparent on the surface. I loved the “odd couple” pairing of them, the inherent humor in that pairing. I also loved the set designs and costumes, the ‘not that long ago’ feeling to the whole film.

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  13. Kay
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 09:46:04

    There isn’t an ebook, or is there?

    I’ve heard good things about Persephone books but never tried one, and this seems like a good place to start.

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  14. Jayne
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 13:11:25

    @Kay: I don’t think there’s an ebook – or at least my quick check didn’t find one.

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  15. Jayne
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 13:15:43

    @Maya: Yes, I’ve seen that “Emma” adaptation and agree that he does make a nice Mr. Knightley. But has he ever done anything else besides East End criminals? Even his role in one of the Prime Suspect shows makes him look slightly morally questionable, IIRC.

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  16. TiceB
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 14:02:31

    I’m so with you on this movie. It was highly recommended to me and I did try to enjoy it, but like you said, it just misses the mark somehow. I thought the ending was especially heavy-handed and improbable. The movie did make me curious enough to read the book–which I loved! After reading it, I couldn’t imagine how anyone envisioned Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew.

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  17. Maya M.
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 14:47:37

    I didn’t even know this was a book! I remember liking the movie overall (would give it a B), liking Frances McDormand, liking how her relationship with Ciaran Hinds’ character developed, how she kept being prevented from eating as a symbol of all kinds of other deprivations both physical and emotional, but, like Christine above, struggling with Delysia’s multiple men because she didn’t do it from a sense of being a free and modern woman, she did it furtively, hiding each one from the other, and very clearly was involved with two only for the sake of her advancement without the slightest bit of emotion. This made me really not care whether she got a happy end or not. I did care whether Miss Pettigrew would, though.

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  18. Maya
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 16:39:15

    @Jayne:

    He played a nice guy in the original British version of “Fever Pitch.” I think. It’s been a while since I saw it.

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  19. Luce
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 16:43:28

    Yeah, I’d say that this film is between a C and a C- for me. Back when I went to see it at the cinema, I was ready to get swept away on the screwball part. Instead, I remember checking my watch because, like you said, I could see both Frances and Amy acting. A lot of the magic/escapist angle simply wasn’t there.

    Looking back, it seems to me that it’s a case of miscasting both roles. Especially Miss Pettigrew. Don’t know who exactly I’d have picked instead, but both Frances and Amy are way off, imho.

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  20. CNW
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 18:13:31

    I like this movie, but mostly because of Lee Pace. Mmmm, Lee Pace. His accent swings wildly, but dang it, he is really really really attractive.

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  21. Jayne
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 18:23:22

    @Maya: Yes, yes you’re right, he did play a good guy in that movie. Back when he had hair!

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  22. Carrie
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 21:43:26

    The audiobook is narrated by Frances McDormand and is wonderful. It’s all the more amazing for having been written as a contemporary novel. It’s a wonderful insight into the time period. There are unfortunately some opinions expressed by the characters about Jews that are ungracious and stereotypical. But overall the book is beautifully written and wonderfully narrated. Not a typical romance, but with romantic elements and lots of humor.

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  23. heidenkind
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 23:11:30

    So do you like the book better, then?

    I did like the movie, but almost entirely because of Ciaran Hinds. It really hits its stride during the party at Delysia’s apartment.

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  24. Jayne
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 07:26:29

    @heidenkind: Did I like the book better or is your question directed to someone else in the thread? I’ll go ahead and answer for myself and say yes, I enjoyed the book much better.

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  25. Susan/DC
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 14:43:00

    I’ve not yet read the book although I do have it and won’t be surprised if I like it better, but I actually liked the movie. Frances McDormand’s accent may not have been perfect, but I thought she did a good job of showing a woman hungry for everything — food, love, and a decent haircut — but increasingly afraid she’d wind up with nothing. Amy Adams was a brash golddigger, but that kind of character is a staple of many movies of the era, not to mention lots of romance novels (although in romances the desire for money is often for the sake of the impoverished estate/orphans/whatever). I’d seen and enjoyed Lee Pace in “Pushing Daisies” but it wasn’t until I saw him in this that I said “hot damn, that man is attractive”, which may have been the period clothes, the role, or a mix of factors. And I’ve loved Ciaran Hinds since I saw him as Brian de Bois Guilbert in “Ivanhoe”, where he was sex on a stick. It’s nice to see him as older but still worthy of romance.

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  26. VickieUK
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 17:35:29

    I liked the film but not as much as I hoped I would and I agree that it doesn’t do the characters justice. But maybe that’s because I LOVED the book.
    Please try to read “Miss Pettigrew” as she and her story are funny, beautiful and understated but also genuinely uplifting.

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  27. Janine
    Apr 29, 2012 @ 12:19:58

    Usually accents aren’t a deal breaker for me but Frances McDormand’s English accent always sounded off. I couldn’t stop thinking “This is McDormand using a fake accent.” I loved how she sounded in “Fargo” but here it seemed like she needed a few more lessons with her accent coach.

    My BIL who lives in Minnesota hated the way McDormand sounded in Fargo. He told me that nobody who lives in Fargo or indeed, anywhere else in the state sounds like that.

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  28. Janine
    Apr 29, 2012 @ 12:26:24

    @Carrie: Thanks for mentioning the anti-Semitism in the book. Given the strength of my negative reaction to The Grand Soply I should probably skip it.

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  29. Book & Movie: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day | Iris on Books
    Nov 21, 2012 @ 13:29:00

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