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Movie Review: Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

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When you see a film called Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, what do you think it is going to be? That is a question you are going to have to answer for yourself. However, I can tell you that thoughts of an entertaining movie did not enter my mind. Seriously, does that look like a good movie title? Whenever I mentioned it to friends, they generally responded with a quizzical look, as if I had two heads.

Anyway, I gave the trailer a view and to my surprise it did not look half bad. It did have the advantage of an appealing cast, featuring a couple of stars on the rise, and the project looked like fun. I know, I was surprised, too. So off I went to the theater, which I shared with scant few. Judging by the audience's reactions, I was not the only one who enjoyed it.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day brings to mind the era of screwball comedies of the 1930s and '40s. You remember, films like Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve, and His Girl Friday. It was an era that saw the likes of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges delivering memorable comedy to the screen, and influencing later films such as Some Like it Hot and Pillow Talk. The influence can even be felt in more recent years, even before Pettigrew, with the likes of Down with Love. Needless to say, it is a type of comedy whose heyday was long ago, but whose ripples are still felt today.

It may have been one of those ripples that inspired the creative team behind this film to take a look back to that era for inspiration in bringing this underserved genre back to the big screen. You see, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is based on the novel of the same name, originally published in 1939 and written by Winifred Watson. It is interesting to note that Miss Watson did have trouble getting the book published at first. Her prior novels were dramas and there was less interest in a "fun" novel.

However, once it was published, Universal bought the film rights and had intentions of making the adaptation with the lead played by Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz). Before the film could get made, WWII broke out, Pearl Harbor happened and many film projects were dumped. Interest in the project did not resurface until 2002, shortly before the death of Winifred Watson at the age of 95.

Back to the movie at hand.

This is a film filled with crackling dialogue. Yes, it is an odd phrase and no, I am not exactly sure what it means, but it seems fitting with the snappy patter that is peppered throughout. After getting through the slow opening minutes a manic energy steps in and takes control of much of the film. There is madcap action as people get juggled, manipulated, pushed, pulled, and moved around the cinematic chessboard. It is a blast to watch, and never becomes overly complicated, even with the number of players in the mix.

As the film opens, Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) has been let go by her latest employer. Her specialty is childcare; however, her strong-willed nature does not interact well with the highbrow society within which she works. Due to this conflict the service that employs her tells her that there are no current assignments for her, nor will there be any in the future.

Lingering a little, she witnesses a business card belonging to a potential employer placed, unguarded, on the desk before her. Going against her own strong moral code, she takes the card and leaves. Before taking action on the stolen card, she must take care of herself. She has no money, no place to sleep, and the only prospect is the card in her pocket. So, after a lonely night on the streets the screwball comedy picks up and she finds herself in the foyer of the flat containing a manic Delyssia Lafosse (Enchanted's Amy Adams).

Their first meeting is a mixture of mistaken identity, double entendre, and quick, perfectly timed lines that build to a fever pitch. Miss Pettigrew has arrived at a crucial moment in Delyssia's day. You see, she is something of a golddigger, juggling three men for three different goals, and currently she has to get one out of the house before a second arrives. She enlists Miss Pettigrew as an accomplice in this malfeasance.

As it turns out, Miss Pettigrew could not have arrived at a better time, not for Delyssia, nor for herself. Both women are reaching crucial moments in their respective lives, a turning point where they need to move onto the next chapter of their lives. Each of them is fast approaching the point of no return, although neither of them ar quite prepared to deal with it.

Following their initial encounter, Delyssia hires her on to be her social secretary. Neither is quite sure of what the position entails, but the two have bonded so quickly that they go along with the flow. The further into the day they go, the closer to a life-changing moment they get.

Now, this all sounds awfully serious, but it is anything but, even with shadow of the impending second World War. These women find themselves entangled in love triangles, each with their own comical complications.  Delyssia is juggling Nick (Mark Strong), the night club owner whose riches attract her and who provides her with employment and an elegant lifestyle; Phil (Tom Payne), the young stage producer set to cast her as the lead in his latest production; and Michael (Lee Pace), a poor piano player. On Miss Pettigrew's side there is the cold, manipulative Edith (Shirley Henderson), and her on again/off again fiance Joe (Ciarin Hinds), a lingerie designer who is quite taken with the rather frumpy Miss Pettigrew. Together, Delyssia and Miss Pettigrew must find themselves and help each other to that end.

It is a blast watching it play out. The energy never really lets up. There are a few moments where it is toned down to allow some heartfelt moments through, but these are woven beautifully into the fine fabric of the film.

The casting is perfect. Frances McDormand grounds the film, keeping it from completely flying off into fantasy land, yet does not get in the way of the heights that it soars to. It is a solid performance that does not disappoint. Now, while it may be McDormand's tale to be told, it is Amy Adams who holds the true center around which everything else orbits. She has such an adorable and captivating screen presence that you will not be able to look away. Her star is definitely on the rise. Then there is Lee Pace, channeling a touch of Clive Owen suaveness, as the paino player. He has a great presence, continuing his success from his role on Pushing Daisies. Beyond these three, no part is too small and no part is miscast, together they gel wonderfully.

Director Bharat Nalluri (Killing Time, The Crow: Salvation) brings an active look to the film with plenty of camera movement that adds style yet remains unobtrusive. He also gets excellent performances from the cast. Of course, the screenplay from David Magee and Simon Beaufoy is not to be ignored, successfully translating the novel to the screen in very entertaining fashion. There is a lot of heart in the film as the women find themselves and the comic situations build up around them.

Bottom line. This is a wonderful film, one that completely caught me by surprise. The trailer looked good, but I did not expect to be drawn in or laugh as much as I did. It is a delightful experience and further proves that Amy Adams is going to be a big star. Do yourself a favor — even if you don't think you'd like it, give this a shot, you may well be surprised by what you find.

Highly Recommended.

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