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Monday, August 25, 2008

Review: Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (2008)

* * *

Director: Bharat Nalluri
Starring: Frances McDormand, Amy Adams

The success of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day rests largely on the ability of the actors to raise the material above its base level. While the dialogue is clever, the pacing quick, and the film overall quite charming, it is also in many respects a shallow exercise in storytelling. Save for a few key moments, the film is all surface and no depth.

Frances McDormand stars as Miss Pettigrew, a governess who can’t manage to hold a job and doesn’t have a penny to her name. On impulse, she shows up at the home of Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), whom she believes to be in need of a governess, though in actuality she’s seeking a social secretary. Delysia is an actress who spends most of her time inhabiting a dizzy, Marilyn Monroe-esque persona and juggling three romantic attachments: Phil (Tom Payne), a producer, Nick (Mark Strong), her official boyfriend, and Michael (Lee Pace), the man that she actually loves. Over the course of one chaotic day when Delysia’s future will be decided (she’ll either go to New York with Michael, star in Phil’s play, or continue her toxic relationship with Nick), Miss Pettigrew proves to be indispensible, a sort of savant when it comes to managing Delysia's romantic entanglements.

There are a few significant flaws in the film, the most glaring of which is one of the two central conflicts. Delysia’s friend, Edythe (Shirley Henderson), knows the truth about Miss Pettigrew, having seen her standing in line at a soup kitchen, and threatens to reveal this fact to Delysia unless Miss Pettigrew works her relationship magic on Edythe’s on-again, off-again fiancĂ©e, Joe (Ciaran Hinds). There’s not really any good reason why Miss Pettigrew should see this as a threat when, for one thing, Delysia knows what it is to put on an act and wouldn’t be likely to fault her for it, and for another is already aware that Miss Pettigrew came to her penniless. This “conflict” is meaningless and, to make matters worse, Edythe, the supposedly savvy social player, just gives her game away without much prompting.

Another problem is that the film doesn’t seem to know that Miss Pettigrew is its most interesting character and constantly drifts away from her, treating her as secondary. The story takes place just before the outbreak of World War II and there is a moment when a party is interrupted by half a dozen bombers flying overhead. As the other guests gape at and cheer on the bombers, Miss Pettigrew turns to Joe and says quietly, “They don’t remember the last war.” More is expressed about the character with this one line – and the way it’s played by McDormand – than is expressed about most of the other characters during the course of the whole film. It’s quiet moments like this one, and a couple of scenes between McDormand and Adams in which they’re allowed to reveal hidden sides of their characters, that elevate the movie from being glossy but meaningless.

I suppose that what it ultimately comes down to is a problem of tone and genre. Despite its comedic leanings, the film doesn't have the confidence to be an out and out screwball comedy, and despite its quieter moments it doesn't have the gravitas to be a serious drama, and so remains hovering between the two. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a very beautiful film to look at, and the performances by McDormand and Adams are great, but the film itself doesn't hold up that well to scrutiny.

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