Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand, “Fargo”) is an out-of-work nanny fending off starvation in 1939 London. When an employment agency peevishly refuses to give her a job, Miss Pettigrew snatches up the business card of aspiring actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams, “Junebug”). Upon arriving at Delysia’s loft, Miss Pettigrew finds that the actress doesn’t need a nanny, after all, but rather a social secretary to help secure her place in London society.
The film follows a hectic day in the life of these two women who have been thrown together unexpectedly. It turns out that each has something to offer the other. Miss Pettigrew’s task: help Delysia choose between her three lovers, two of whom are sleazy egomaniacs. The third, Michael (Lee Pace), is a passionate and genuine piano player who has known Delysia for years. The choice is obvious, but Delysia’s thirst for entrée into society blinds her from true love.
With her shiny curls and flouncing skirts, Adams’ portrayal of Delysia makes this film delightful. We can’t help but wonder how someone could be so adorable and so frustrating at the same time. She lives in a world of glamour, but she never truly becomes the coquettish socialite she aspires to be.
Adams has a special talent for conveying how overwhelmed Delysia really is: she bounces around from one social event to another with great enthusiasm, but her wistful eyes hint that she wants more from life.
Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand skillfully captures Miss Pettigrew’s understated wisdom. She speaks sparingly, but when she does, she says something either charmingly clumsy or surprisingly perceptive. Sometimes the sheer absurdity of her situation makes you laugh, but not without regrets—this woman has suffered in life and teeters on the brink of poverty, but she gets the chance to live again in the course of a single day.
The movie’s production values work well together, creating a nice backdrop for the main action of the film. The costumes are true to the era, and the wistful piano melodies add to the slightly nostalgic atmosphere. Visually, the movie is beautiful and artistic, but the plot is too predictable. Despite her troubles and social handicaps, there’s not a lot of doubt that Miss Pettigrew will get her happy ending.
The memory of Adams singing a sweet musical number may linger after the movie ends, but “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” is largely forgettable. This is director Bharat Nalluri’s first feature-length film, and it shows. The movie is aesthetically thoughtful, but it lacks thematic depth.
Although Adams and McDormand make a delightful pair, they can’t rescue the movie from the superficiality of its screenplay. The characters are too flat to elevate the film to the level of profound social commentary.
Instead of a substantive film, all Nalluri leaves us is a shell of what could have been a meaningful story of one woman’s ability to rise above her unfortunate circumstances.