'Miss Pettigrew': A Flick to Brighten Anyone's Day

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008; Page C01

Dad, you can go to the movies again.

It's been a tough season at the multiplex for my father. He's a good man, a retired widower who has experienced the sacrifice, pain and loss that inevitably come with living for 70-plus years. In other words, he's earned the right not to watch Anton Chigurh blow people away with a stun gun in "No Country for Old Men" or Daniel Plainview go ballistic in a bowling alley in "There Will Be Blood" or Sweeney Todd slit people's throats to a catchy Sondheim tune.

He's earned the right, in other words, to be entertained -- not by explosions or existential ambiguity or man's inhumanity to man, just by a nice story with a few laughs, some essentially decent characters and a happy ending. Is that so wrong?

You can almost hear that last line delivered by the daffy starlet played by Amy Adams in "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," a jolly romp that entertains on all those levels. As a manipulative but lovable ingenue, Adams sparkles like a rhinestone in the midst of the early-March slush. But rather than steal "Miss Pettigrew," she graciously shares it with Frances McDormand, who as the deceptively dowdy title character gets her own chance to blossom.

McDormand is Guinevere Pettigrew, a veddy proper governess working in 1930s London who, in a quick opening sequence, is being summarily sacked by her latest employer (something about children gone missing in the park).

Director Bharat Nalluri jumps right into the action, sending Miss Pettigrew from her firing to a dispiriting session at an employment agency, and finally -- through Miss Pettigrew's own wily resourcefulness -- to the posh apartment of American actress Delysia Lafosse (Adams), all within minutes.

It's a little whiplash-inducing, but the brain strain is worth it, if only to hear Delysia's whispery "Hi" when she opens the door. Channeling such great comic leading ladies as Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe and even a bit of Judy Holliday, Adams spends the rest of "Miss Pettigrew" flirting, giggling and singing her way into our hearts as a round-heeled woman with a heart of just-slightly-tarnished gold.

Delysia, it turns out, is juggling three men as she hungrily goes after her main chance: starring in the new West End musical "Pile On the Pepper." When Miss Pettigrew shows up in her frumpy tweeds, Delysia promptly enlists her as her social secretary, resulting in 24 hours during which Our Miss P. navigates the madcap, cheerfully amoral world of prewar cafe society. "Frightening," Miss Pettigrew whispers when she and Delysia gaze upon a store window featuring mannequins wearing gas masks. "Yeah," Delysia responds in her fluting, little-girl voice. "Capped sleeves. It's a horror show."

"Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" is adapted from a little-known but beloved novel by Winifred Watson, but it also might remind viewers of other movies set in Britain at the same time, namely "Cold Comfort Farm" and "Mrs. Henderson Presents." Like those films, "Miss Pettigrew" affects a breezy but self-aware tone; Miss Pettigrew is old enough to remember World War I, giving Delysia's high jinks and sexual roundelays an unmistakably mournful undercurrent.

But for the most part, "Miss Pettigrew" is a celebration of youthful joie de vivre, embodied by Adams with an intoxicating mixture of naivete and sharp-eyed ambition. Anyone who saw this extraordinary creature in the 2005 film "Junebug," or more recently in "Enchanted," knows that Adams is one of the best reasons to go to the movies these days. In "Miss Pettigrew," she confirms that with a performance that exploits her dewy innocence, her instinctive comedic gift (just listen to the way she pronounces "ten") and, in a heartbreaking rendition of "If I Didn't Care," her lovely singing voice. With her creamy complexion, wide-eyed sincerity and subtle hint of sensual lust, she's a champagne cocktail in a peignoir.

"Miss Pettigrew" benefits, too, from a terrific supporting cast that includes Ciar¿n Hinds, a lingerie designer Miss Pettigrew meets during her adventure, Shirley Henderson and Lee Pace. But it's McDormand who throughout the picture slyly claims the spotlight for her very own, often through the most subtle physical expressions of longing or regret. Undergoing one of the most gratifying Cinderella makeovers in recent memory, McDormand seems to ripen and bloom in real time, as Delysia's wall clock provides a ticktock to her thoroughly unexpected (and pointedly food-free) day.

Filmed on a scale more suited to television than big-screen theaters, "Miss Pettigrew" has its limitations, namely in Nalluri's difficulty with pacing. A film with this much action and smart dialogue should move with rat-a-tat-tat alacrity, and too often it flags. But such modest flaws are nothing compared with the pleasures "Miss Pettigrew" offers, chiefly in its unapologetic pursuit of old-fashioned fun, sweetness and romance.

So, Dad, this one's for you: Go ahead and brave the snows of Des Moines, fire up the AARP discount and head to the nearest theater showing "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day." Your long cinematic nightmare is over.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (101 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for partial nudity and innuendo.

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