U.S. Release Date: March 7, 2008
Distributor: Focus Features
Director: Bharat Nalluri
Writer: David Magee, Simon Beaufoy
Cast: Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Shirley Henderson, Lee Pace, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong
Running Time: 1 hour and 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (some partial nudity and innuendo)

Frances McDormand Takes Charge in British Period Romp
by Scott Holleran

Built for economy, intelligence and speed, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a sporty motion picture that, to paraphrase another movie about a handsome London governess, is practically perfect in every way.

Frances McDormand, expressing herself with her eyes, plays the plain Jane. As the story begins, the poor dear is simply a mess; a veritable nag prone to moralizing herself right out of a job. Her stiff manner overcoats a fine, soft woman underneath—one that's been weathered by the hardship of war.

Guinevere Pettigrew's brand new day begins as Great Britain braces for another war—this one against Nazi Germany—so what's sweet and silly is craftily sewn with an underlying seriousness, like the similarly secular and fabulous Mrs. Henderson Presents. With a script by David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), Miss Pettigrew is more upbeat.

That is because Miss McDormand, emoting and enunciating nicely, waddling like a commoner and gaining her tweedy character's color and dignity back with every scene, smacks the role with another super performance. Taking the ordinary, middle-aged worker from adult daughter of a religious father to wise, awakened, and self-aware, she carries the show.

What happens in between turns on Miss Pettigrew's accidental—and slightly improvised—employment with an American actress named Delysia (Amy Adams) as in delicious. The overripe tart wraps herself around multiple male lovers on a schedule that virtually assures a collision course. Enter the mannish Miss Pettigrew, mistaken by the dim, desperate Delysia for an agency secretary.

Promptly disposing of Delysia's well-endowed, well-connected plaything, Philip, defusing Delysia's swarthy lover Nick's accusations with the clever—and hilarious—use of a cigar and detaining the penniless piano player Michael, resourceful Pettigrew makes an impression running interference for the West End tramp at her lover's posh Art Deco apartment. Delysia taps the dowdy broad for a makeover as her private secretary.

Not so deep down, Miss Pettigrew is starving for a bite to eat—having to endure petty, pretentious fashion types in order to cash her first paycheck. But, bonding in situational sisterhood with the extremely shallow actress, she runs into problem after problem. Sturdy Pettigrew toughs it out, bumping up against evil fashion maven Edythe (Shirley Henderson) who schemes to entrap a top London designer (Ciaran Hinds) into marriage.

The delightful romp unrolls at a brisk pace in stunning digs and gowns, with neat transitions and toe-tapping tunes, crisply directed by Bharat Nalluri. It is the antithesis of a loud, brainless movie—a reward for anyone who enjoys a movie with a dash of wit and wisdom.

These dames are looking for love—even dastardly Edythe, essentially a mimic of Henderson's Moaning Myrtle character from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, longs to be loved—yet they do so, for once, without emasculating the men in the movie. As romantic pianist Michael, Lee Pace steals scenes from Adams, who, while energetic, overdoes another role with the same breathy, kewpie doll act she did in the tepid Enchanted.

Actor Ciaran Hinds meets Miss McDormand head on as Joe, a seasoned artist with an eye for what suits the feminine form and a preference for a woman who wears it well. Though the farce plays too broad toward the end—and Delysia's transformation is implausible—Miss Pettigrew finds her voice under a piano, her confidence in a back alley and her own unique gait shortly thereafter, making Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day an enthralling tale of an ordinary woman in extraordinarily hard times rediscovering the joy of living.

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