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
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
She arrives at the posh
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.
Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.