Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)
Genre: Romantic Comedy
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.
I’m going to include buy links for the book.