by HELEN GEIB
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a movie that tries very hard to please. I didn’t like it, but I felt very alone in my reaction. I haven’t felt such a chasm between my and the rest of the audience’s responses since I saw Miss Potter and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. If you liked those films, I daresay you’ll like Miss Pettigrew. They have a lot in common.
Frances McDormand is Miss Pettigrew and the star of the show. She’s a formidable actress and she brings a lot to this film, and I mean a lot. She singlehandedly drags its rating up to 2 stars. But while I give the film credit for providing a showcase for a star turn by an older actress, it’s not much of a movie otherwise, and her performance can only partially mask how little the film gives her to work with.
The limited characterization is largely inherent in the film’s structure. The story, set in pre-war London, takes place over three days with most of the action confined to the middle day. In outline, the story is farcical. Mistakenly thinking she is applying to be a governess, Miss Pettigrew enter the employ of Delysia LaFosse (Amy Adams), a beautiful, scatterbrained, and promiscuous young chanteuse with aspirations to theatrical stardom. Delysia gives Miss Pettigrew a makeover and a taste of the high life; Miss Pettigrew gives Delysia sound romantic advice. Enter comic and sexual complications and conclude with a happy ending.
Except the movie is not comic, except in isolated parts. Whether from wanting to do too much or not knowing what it wanted to be, the film is an uneasy mixture of farce and romantic melodrama, with the melodrama dominant. Either approach could have been the basis for a good film; an exceptional film might successfully combine the two. This film is a mess that wants to have its cake and eat it too.
The central idea of the story is that Miss Pettigrew is lifted out of prosaic, everyday life to a wilder, decadent sphere where she will straighten out the lives of its inhabitants and herself experience a whirlwind romance. The plot proceeds along those lines, but the expected comic return never materializes. The superficial characters we’re supposed to laugh at simply aren’t very funny, and the worlds are too much alike to support a comedy of contrasts. The supposedly extraordinary and comical world that Delysia moves in is in fact a hotbed of very ordinary melodramatic subplots. The flip side of the coin is that except for Miss Pettigrew, it’s very hard to feel anything for these people, so the melodrama doesn’t work either.
Adams fares much less well with her part than McDormand. Early on, the script works in knowing references to Carole Lombard and Four’s a Crowd (a lesser ‘thirties Hollywood comedy of romantic complications, not starring Lombard), and Delysia is clearly intended as a latter day screwball comedy heroine. The incomparable Lombard might have been able to make the character live. But she was a unique talent, and Adams’s Delysia never breaks free of the script’s painfully artificial characterization.
Towards the end of the film there begins to be a lot of talk about the importance of living for the moment, prompted by the imminence of war and Miss Pettigrew and her suitor’s memories of loss in the Great War. We’re meant to smile through the tears, but instead I began to think about a different movie and wish I was watching it instead. Bon Voyage, a French film from 2003, is a farce set in Paris on the literal eve of the German occupation. It’s a great film, intelligent, very funny, and with a lot to say about France’s wartime history. I recommend it highly.