Friday, March 14, 2008

An English Trifle

Winifred Watson's slender 1938 novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, about a dowdy English governess who becomes social secretary to a ditsy nightclub singer, was supposed to be made into a Hollywood movie starring Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz). But the bombing of Pearl Harbor put an end to those plans, as Hollywood focused on producing morale-boosting films. The book, a big hit in its day, fell into obscurity. Sixty years later, the book was rediscovered and republished, shortly before Watson’s death in 2002 at age 96.

Looking back, Watson said, “I wish the Japanese had waited six months.”

The charming story finally comes to the screen in an affectionate adaptation written by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy and directed by Bharat Nalluri. Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for her performance in husband Joel Coen’s Fargo, is superb as Guinevere Pettigrew, the “governess of last resort” who bumbles her way out of yet another job, only to find Miss Holt (Stephanie Cole), the stern head of the governess agency, unwilling to reassign her. In desperation, she takes from Miss Holt’s desk a calling card bearing the name “Delysia Lafosse.”

The story is a perfect Aristotelian drama, taking place entirely in the course of one day. This particular day finds Miss Pettigrew seeking sustenance at a soup kitchen, then dropping her humble victuals on the ground, a running joke: throughout the movie, Miss Pettigrew never gets a proper meal.

She arrives at the posh London flat of Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), a bubbly, satin-robed beauty with a highly disorganized love life. A nightclub singer and aspiring actress, Delysia is kept in luxury by nightclub owner Nick (Mark Strong), and is also involved with her sincere but penniless accompanist, Michael (Lee Pace). On the morning Miss Pettigrew arrives, Delysia is romping in bed with a theater producer’s son, Phil (Tom Payne), “auditioning” for the lead role in a new show.

Delysia puts Miss Pettigrew to work as her social secretary, and the ex-nanny’s quick thinking helps straighten out the chaos in the young woman’s world. The grateful Delysia takes Miss Pettigrew shopping for new clothes and a makeover.

The movie’s period sense is delightful, with John de Borman’s burnished cinematography, a jazzy 1930s soundtrack and exquisite re-creations of the art deco parlors and clubs where Delysia and her carefree friends drink and scheme, couple and un-couple, dancing on the edge of the volcano. “Love is not a game,” warns Miss Pettigrew, who lost her only love in World War I, but she agrees to help smooth over a tiff between Edythe DuBarry (Shirley Henderson), a social-climbing fashion salon owner, and her fiancé, high-society lingerie designer Joe Blumfield (Ciarán Hinds), after Edythe threatens to reveal Miss Pettigrew’s soup-kitchen origins.

The milieu of this slight but enjoyable film is a cross between P.G. Wodehouse and the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Yet unlike those stories, the movie acknowledges the darkness of the times (though it leaves out the cocaine-and-cocktail breakfasts in the novel). The specter of impending war looms, as fighter planes roar ominously above a fancy theater party. “They don’t remember the last one,” Miss Pettigrew remarks to Joe, her only age peer in the room. A shared world-weariness and longing for authenticity draws Joe and Miss Pettigrew into an unlikely alliance, while Miss Pettigrew, after an air raid drill, urges Delysia to pursue true love over personal ambition.

The casting could not be more ideal. Adams’ pert looks and piping voice suit her perfectly to the Judy Holliday role of the self-created socialite. And though American actresses’ attempts at English accents are usually laughable, McDormand embodies the character perfectly. Her modest dignity is very endearing; at one point Delysia gushes, “Miss Pettigrew, I love you!” and it’s easy to understand how she feels.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

No comments: