As light and pleasant as a summer breeze and almost as weightless, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” is a screwball comedy set in London during the Great Depression. England is on the brink of war with Germany, breadlines stretch around the block — and everyone’s doing their best to live it up as though they haven’t a care in the world.
Of course, this is more or less the way movies of the 1930s portrayed life; no one wanted to go to the cinema just to be reminded how poor everyone was. Based on Winifred Watson’s 1938 novel and guided by British TV director Bharat Nalluri, “Miss Pettigrew” re-creates the swing-era merriment with cheerful abandon, only occasionally pausing to remind us of the peril that England was about to face.
Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a not-very-good governess, frequently unemployed and (as far as we can tell) homeless, too. Frumpy and dowdy, with frizzled hair and a sackcloth dress, she looks every bit like the sheltered clergyman’s daughter she is. But she’s as resourceful as Mary Poppins, and when she swipes a lead from the employment office and finds herself acting as “social secretary” to a flighty nightclub singer, she adapts to the new duties without a moment’s hesitation.
The singer is Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), an American girl with a baby-doll voice who’s currently stringing along three, count ’em three, men. Nick (Mark Strong) is the wealthy nightclub owner whose apartment she’s inhabiting; Phil (Tom Payne) is the callow 19-year-old producer’s son who she hopes can get her the lead role in a new West End musical; and Michael (Lee Pace) is her pianist at the club, a decent fellow, and clearly the one she’s meant to be with. In the tradition of romantic comedies, that means it is he whom she neglects the most.
Delysia does not mean to be trampy or duplicitous in her affairs with these three fellows. She seems as alarmed by the circumstances as Miss Pettigrew is, as if she has no idea how she got into the mess but now finds it all rather exciting. For her part, Miss Pettigrew dutifully helps Delysia tell the right fibs to get one man out of the house before another one shows up, all the while gently guiding her toward the right decisions. A good governess does more than merely follow orders, after all; she seeks to truly help her employer.
Delysia can’t abide Miss Pettigrew’s ghastly outfit, so the two go shopping and make the middle-aged spinster over into a handsome, matronly woman of society. It is in this guise that Miss Pettigrew meets Joe (Ciaran Hinds), a fashion designer with a snobby, social-climbing fiancee, Edythe (Shirley Henderson). The latter recognizes Miss Pettigrew from seeing her on the breadline the night before and holds that information over her. No one thought Miss Pettigrew was a duchess or anything, but surely they would be appalled to learn she was penniless and starving.
The story reassuringly stacks the deck in just the right way so that everyone who must be dumped before the final scene has it coming. A more substantial film would make Delysia’s choice between her three suitors a more difficult one, or have it so Miss Pettigrew’s burgeoning flirtation with Joe was inappropriate given his relationship with Edythe. But “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” is about a nobody being somebody for 24 hours, and as such has no interest in deep, weighty matters. We are on board to see daft Brits run around in a flurry, slam doors, coo to their beloveds, and eventually wind up happily ever after.
Frances McDormand — with her wise, pragmatic face and joyful (if not classically “beautiful”) smile — is perfectly cast as Miss Pettigrew, a woman who is kind but not to be trifled with. Amy Adams, meanwhile, coming off her delightful appearance in “Enchanted,” continues to be … well, enchanting as Delysia. She has the perfect flibbertigibbet charm to balance out Miss Pettigrew’s more sensible behavior, so much so that it compels me to use the word “flibbertigibbet” for the first time in my career.
Underneath it all, tucked away in the corners, are the occasional reminders that Miss Pettigrew really IS poor and starving, and that England really IS about to go to war. The young people ignore the omens and continue partying; as Miss Pettigrew quietly says to Joe at one point, “They don’t remember the last one, do they?” She remembers, though, and she has had her share of sadness. How nice that she gets to truly live for a day … and maybe even for a little while longer, too.
B+ (1 hr., 41 min.; )