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With: Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Ciarán Hinds, Shirley Henderson, Lee Pace, Tom Payne, Mark Strong, Clare Clifford, Christina Cole, Stephanie Cole, Beatie Edney, Sarah Kants
Written by: David Magee and Simon Beaufoy, based on a novel by Winifred Watson
Directed by: Bharat Nalluri
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some partial nudity and innuendo
Running Time: 92
Date: 03/07/2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Social Butterfingers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For decades, filmmakers have tried to emulate the energy and speed of the 1930s screwball comedy classics, and the Indian-born Bharat Nalluri, until now a director of B-movies and television, has finally done it. Nalluri takes a batch of mistaken identities, romantic tangles and characters scrambling from place to place, throws in a few quiet moments and murmurs about war, and whips them together in a brisk, airy confection, with no irony or complications. It may feel insubstantial, but it's far more accomplished than it appears. (Simon Beaufoy, of The Full Monty, co-wrote the screenplay from a 1938 novel by Winifred Watson.)

Frances McDormand plays Guinevere Pettigrew, an unemployable governess in the late 1930s (just prior to WWII). On the search for a new job, she finds herself quite suddenly and unexpectedly employed as a "social secretary" for rising singer and actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams). At the outset, Miss Pettigrew must use her skills to help Delysia juggle her three boyfriends, a shady nightclub owner, a dopey theatrical producer and a poor, honest pianist (Lee Pace). Meanwhile, potential blackmail raises its ugly head in the form of socialite Edythe Dubarry (Shirley Henderson), whose on-again, off-again fiancé clothing designer Joe (Ciaran Hinds) has eyes for Miss Pettigrew. All this occurs in the course of a breathless 24 hours. Thankfully, Nalluri allows the war talk and imagery to seep in around the edges of his film but without touching or diluting its center. Rather, he uses it for a few reflective pauses in his otherwise harried narrative.

It goes without saying that the film hinges on Adams and her perky, wide-eyed, rapid-fire patter. When cast correctly, as she is here, as well as Enchaned and Junebug, Adams is a marvel. (But when cast badly as in Charlie Wilson's War, she blends into the wallpaper.) She embodies a kind of cutie-pie, clueless innocence to balance her debauchery; it's a kind of Lombard-like role that few living actresses could pull off. The soulful, earthy McDormand perfectly compliments her, filling in as the better half of a kind of Wooster and Jeeves team for modern-day multiplexes. Depending on your leaning, Miss Pettigrew will go perfectly with either tea and cucumber sandwiches, or a chilled martini.

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