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'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day'

A frantic return of great dames.

By Dorothy Woodend 21 Mar 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other Friday for The Tyee.

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Frances McDormand and Amy Adams star.

Miss Guinevere Pettigrew isn't having a very good day. She's been fired from her latest job, she can't get another, and she's lost everything she owns. What's a good woman to do when she's down on her luck, except impersonate London's finest social secretary and ascend into the stratosphere of society?

Such is the premise of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a small, polished gem of a film starring Frances McDormand as the titular lady. When Miss Pettigrew finds herself in the employ of an up-and-coming actress, by the highly unlikely name of Delysia LaFosse, her life is quickly turned upside. One moment, she's down and out, the next, she rousting a naked young man from bed and smoking a stogie. Miss Pettigrew, however, is nothing if not adaptable, and like any woman of good sense, she immediately begins to sort out the mess that is Delysia's madcap life.

The story (based on the novel by Winifred Watson) is set in pre-Blitz London. It's life before the war, and while the nation girds for conflict, its young creatures are busily ungirding and hopping wildly from bed to bed.

Amy Adams fizzes

The most frantic of these dazzling young ladies is Miss Lafosse (played by the effervescent Amy Adams -- someone please bottle this woman: she's like human ginger ale). Delysia has three boyfriends, and thus three choices for her future. Each man potentially represents a different possibility: there's Nicky the cad, who owns the club where Delysia sings; Phil Goldman, the young and extremely wealthy producer; and the piano player, the delectable Michael, who has a heart of gold and not a penny to his name.

While Delysia juggles her men, and plans her future, which variously includes stardom, money and lots of pretty underwear, Miss Pettigrew is undergoing her own transformation, rediscovering the pleasures of life. Some of the most keen of these are embodied in the fine figure of Joe Blumstein (the wonderful Ciarán Hinds), a designer of women's lacy under things, who is possessed of an especially sharp eye for feminine quality.

No one is actually who they're pretending to be, whether it's Delysia, whose real name is Sarah Grub; Joe Blumstein, who actually started out designing men's socks; or Miss Pettigrew herself, the daughter of a clergyman, who has been reduced to eating in soup kitchens. The fun comes from watching people get what they deserve, almost in spite of themselves.

Great dames

An obvious homage to the great screwballs of the past, films in which women were zany, mad things, and men were sticks in the mud, Miss Pettigrew packs a surprising amount of heart into a silk charmeuse, marabou puff of a story. Art-directed to within an inch of its life, there is steel inside this frothy confection. Frances McDormand provides the iron spine of the film, but she has competition in the form of Amy Adams, who flings herself into the role of Delysia, like a whirling dervish of lust, ambition and grit all sealed up in a beribboned silk package.

Ms. Adams, who graced the abomination that was Enchanted, brings some of the same fairytale glitter with her, but there is a brittle, trembling core beneath all her flutter and helium voice antics. It might look like an old fashioned fairytale, but it's more of the Grimm Brothers variety than the Disney version. It is also, that most rare of things, a film in which female friendship is depicted with warmth and heart.

While Miss Pettigrew and Delysia might appear to be quite different, they are sisters under the skin. Both heroines are complicated and complicating creatures. The pleasure of watching Miss Pettigrew undergo her metamorphosis from drab creature to iron butterfly is matched by seeing Delysia rediscover her heart (within the time it takes to sing "If I Didn't Care").

'Playing at love'

In the end, everyone gets their just comeuppance, whether they like it or not. There is something very satisfying in that, as old fashioned as it may be, but since this film is purposefully anachronistic, perhaps it is only fitting.

Amy Adams is a worthy heiress to the great dames of the past (women like Claudette Colbert, Katherine Hepburn, Myrna Loy et al.), but the film that Miss Pettigrew most reminded me of was George Cukor's The Women (which starred Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell and the immortal Joan Crawford). Set mostly in sumptuous apartments and enormous powder rooms, lush with silk, satin and jungle-red lipstick, The Women (originally a play from Clare Booth Luce) doesn't actually have a single male character in it. Men are discussed endlessly, manipulated like chess pieces, but never actually seen. It is a depiction of a society of females, all busily subverting, colluding and destroying each other with weapons of mass sophistication, wit and guile. It is a uniquely acid pleasure.

The Women is currently being remade with Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and Bette Midler. (A fact that might give you a little shudder.) Although Miss Pettigrew doesn't have nearly the same caustic take on indolent society women (unlike the characters in The Women, who already occupy the upper echelons of society, most of the characters in Miss Pettigrew are strivers, aiming to make it to the top), it shares with Cukor's film a willingness to skewer the foibles of the wealthy and the feckless. "You people, with your green drinks.... You're all playing at love," says Miss Pettigrew. She's right of course, but then, she too, is busy playing a part.

Frantic last days

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is smarter than it looks, and under the direction of Bharat Nalluri, there are a few moments of genuine feeling in amongst slamming doors, ladies' undergarments and slightly naughty screwball antics. Under the growing shadow of war, the actions of the characters start to resemble moths battering their fragile bodies against the light. If period films are really more about current day than yesterday, Miss Pettigrew is no different. Despite the '30s trappings, it feels as if it's happening right now. The pre-war period of frantic pretty things madly dashing from assignation to assignation, the sense that the gossamer soap bubble about to pop has a similar quality to these curious days we're living in.

If Delysia is the Britney Spears of her day, although infinitely better dressed than Ms. Spears, she possesses something of that same mad dash forward. The good old U.S.A., like the Weimar Republic, with its hyper-accelerated, over-inflated culture, is probably about to come to a screeching halt, or maybe more correctly, a precipitous drop. Meanwhile, it's burning all its brightest candles against the great darkness that is finally slouching home. Nowhere is this more evident than inside the movie theatre.

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