Dir. Bharat Nalluri, UK, 2008, 92 minutes.
Set in lavishly-decadent pre-war London, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a grown-up Cinderella story about a middle-aged jobless governess who schemes to be social secretary to an American Lolita, who, in turn, schemes to be a singer. Bharat Nalluri's unimaginative, awkwardly-scripted farcereminds you how witty and elegant the screwball comedies of the 1930's were - while also reminding you how difficult it is to equal them. Aplodding waltz from one formulaic situation to the next, Miss Pettigrewwon't bring back the golden age.
This patchwork adaptation of Winifred Watson's 1938 novel aims for a wide audience (some 500 screens domestically, to start with) which it targeted in a relentless Oscar-week ad campaign. As such,it will gauge the US appetite for British comedies (a la Mrs Henderson Presents) and the cognoscenti's tolerance for mediocre retreads of classic romance.
The crucial draw here is Amy Adams, fresh from the hit Enchanted, in the role of nymphette would-be songstress Delia Lafosse. Even if the theatrical release is as weak as the film iteself, Adams alone should ensure Miss Pettigrew a strong DVD shelf life.
As a middle-aged Cinderella in the title role, Frances McDormand creates a character similar to Miss Clavel, the nun in the children's film Madeline. Yet this suggestively-scripted comedy is anything but kids' fare, which may confuse families. Foreign audiences may be attracted by the promise of glamorous Jazz Age set designs.
The 24-hour fable begins in 1939, as unglamorous greying Guinevere Pettigrew is fired from her latest governess job and walks the streets in the drabbest of clothes looking for a new job. When her agency assures her that she won't be getting another position anytime soon, she steals the card of a new client and appears at the penthouse of aspiring songstress Delysia LaFosse just in time to find nude theatre producer Phil Goldman (Payne) in her bed.
Delysia is sleeping with two other men - Nick (Strong), the nightclub owner who owns the lavish flat, and struggling pianist Michael (Pace). As Delysia struggles to choose between the prospect of a role in a new play produced by Phil and fleeing on an ocean liner to New York with handsome Michael, she plots a Pygmalion project to prettify the homely Miss Pettigrew, by now her new social secretary. Miss P, meanwhile, has developed her own love interest fashion designer Joe (Hinds), uncomfortably engaged to slinky couturier Edythe (Henderson).
Nalluri directs Miss Pettigrew as a farcical romp through the obvious paces, contrasting the governess's night march in sack-cloth with the follies of the idle rich (in a fools' paradise threatened by impending war).
The script by Simon Beaufoy and David Magee is packed with allusions to the movies it might like to be.McDormand's plain-ness seems cribbed from Frank Capra's Meet John Doe, while a sidewalk collision with a well-dressed man ends up opening a suitcase of undergarments (Bridget Jones's Diaries). In Delysia's apartment, Miss Pettigrew retrieves a brassiere from a chandelier with an umbrella (Mary Poppins). Funny Girl comes to mind when you watch romance build between the made-over social secretary and the handsome Joe.
Yet the script gives its cast none of the zinger lines of the classics. McDormand plays her role in near-silence, whereas Adams speaks endlessly with the blitheness of a dumber-than-dumb American in London. Her hair may be red, but she lacks the aplomb and the timing of Katherine Hepburn, who defined the movies that Miss Pettigrew tries so hard to imitate. (The movie is not saved by Adam's attempt at a crescendo, singing If I Didn't Care in a duet with Pace.) You'll have to look elsewhere for today's Stanwyck, Colbert or Hepburn.
Likewise, Sarah Greenwood's production design fails to deliver the magic that a film like this needs. Shot by John de Borman, exterior locations are over-lit; the streets are too groomed for the period; and the silvery and gilded interiors, despite some beguiling details, are more pro forma than provocative.
Keylight Entertainment Group
Kudos Productions Ltd.
US distributor/int'l sales
Based on the 1938 novel by Winifred Watson
John de Borman