A bright, frothy slice of comic delight in the old-school style, "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" proves that they can make them like they used to, if only they try. A carefully calibrated whirligig spinning off sparks of hilarity, the film is an affectionate homage to 1930s top-hat sophistication and the frivolous glamor of classic screwball comedy.
Frances McDormand and Amy Adams make a glorious double act as Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, unemployed London nanny, and Delysia Lafosse, flibbertigibbet actress of flexible virtue. Miss Pettigrew, unemployed and broke, bluffs her way into Delysia's super-sumptuous apartment, presenting herself as a candidate to be the starlet's social secretary. She is utterly inexperienced in the position, but one look at Delysia, who flits from crisis to crisis like a cheerful, spoiled child in a pottery shop, and she knows what to do. The girl needs a governess.
The emergency of the morning is that Nick (Mark Strong), the owner of the flat and the nightclub where Delysia sings, is about to arrive and find his bed occupied by Phil (Tom Payne), a theatrical producer. The situation shocks the prim Guinevere, but she takes command of the situation like an air-raid warden. Delysia rewards her frumpy savior with a trip to a fashion show, where Guinevere's commonsense values impress Joe (Ciaran Hinds), a successful designer. But Joe's conniving fiance, Edythe (helium-voiced Shirley Henderson), presents a foreboding element; she knows Guinevere saw her enjoying an illicit snuggle behind the trusting Joe's back. Each woman holds the threat of exposure over the other.
Over the next 24 hours the complications grow stratospheric - and frankly, a bit over-hectic. Guinevere helps Delysia juggle her beaus, including Michael (Lee Pace), a sweet, flat-broke piano player, at a swanky soiree. In turn, the diva gives her dowdy assistant an eye-opening makeover and a new attitude toward midlife romance.
They say comedy is all about timing. High praise goes to director Bharat Nalluri, who must have clocked the action with a split-second stopwatch. The boudoir doors slam precisely, and when the time comes for an interlude by Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer, he gracefully allows the rat-a-tat pace to relax. His stars complement one another nicely, with McDormand keeping the farce grounded in poignant emotion while Adams makes a feast of her ditzy role.
Although it's small-scale, the film has a sumptuous sheen. Costume designer Michael OConnor has a great feeling for the possibilities of satin and velvet, and production designer Sarah Greenwood's vision of Noel Coward-era Mayfair is an Art Deco fairy tale. The script by David Magee ("Finding Neverland") and Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty") strains a bit for seriousness as bombers hum while Guinevere and Joe lament lost loves and missed opportunities. But the upbeat attitude soon resurfaces in a finale that proves, if love doesn't conquer all, it sure helps.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun