Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day
Screwball comedies of the 1930s don't contain any actual screwing. Maybe that's why frumpy London temp-agency nanny Miss Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is doubly surprised when her new employer, a flighty American actress with the deluxe moniker Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), sends her upstairs to rouse "her boy" still sleeping at the unchristian hour of 10 a.m. Guinevere bangs open the door, hoists the window blind, and yanks back the covers to reveal Delysia's extremely nude and (so he informs us) semi-erect young lover lolling before her. Not even Carole Lombard at her most savoir-faire was ready for this.
Said boy is theatrical producer Phil Goldman (Tom Payne), and Delysia just volunteered herself for the casting couch. But the bed itself, and the deluxe deco apartment surrounding it, belong to Nick (Mark Strong), her other lover and the owner of the nightclub where Delysia sings torch songs, accompanied on piano by Michael (Lee Pace), the third cuckold juggled in the equation. Delysia needs a social secretary to keep her complex personal life straight, and Guinevere, desperate for money, volunteers for the job.
For moviegoers who can think of nothing finer than vicariously clinking cocktails with Nick and Nora Charles, Miss Pettigrew succeeds completely in aping the experience of hungry-eyed Depression-era audiences feasting on a sigh-provoking spectacle of how the moneyed classes must live--lingerie salon luncheons full of petits fours and jelled salads, big band supper clubs where jilted lovers throw martinis in each other's faces, and penthouse shenanigans tolerated with a gentlemanly wink. But just when you think there's nothing of substance embedded in this marzipan, Delysia trots past a shop window where the mannequins' ensembles are topped with insectoid gas masks--the kind the British populace will need, very soon. Delysia wrinkles up her nose in horror at the capped sleeves on the mannequins' ghastly frocks, but Guinevere knows the real magnitude of what's coming. When a cocktail party is interrupted by a Luftwaffe squadron screaming overhead, she doesn't join the gawkers on the patio. "They don't remember the last one," whispers Joe (Ciarán Hinds), one of the few players in this fast young crowd old enough to know. "No," Guinevere demurs , softly and sadly. "They don't."
When Miss Pettigrew lifts its hem to reveal these dark underpinnings of impending war and emotional gravity, it works. And when it drops the hem again to return to a madcap spree of Bugattis, minks, and makeovers, it still works--in no small part thanks to the immensely talented female leads who can match the movie's broad range of tone without ever losing their characters' cores. This neo-screwball fantasy with the sophisticated wink at its pre-war provenance is the rare movie that might please both escapists and cynics in one delighted swoop.