(18/08/08) – If there is a term that strikes a feeling of distinct mediocrity in any critic it is British Period Film. If there is a term that strikes a feeling of distinct despair in any critic it is British Comedy Film. Mix the two together and the omens are not good. Comedy in particular has had more downs than ups recently, bar the odd US indie it’s been a bit of a parade of anodyne rom-coms, a genre that this year has already spewed up the atrocious Definitely, Maybe among many others. So it’s a pleasant surprise to find that Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day is, despite being a British period comedy film, an enjoyable and amiable film that plays to its many strengths and gets away with its minor weaknesses.
Dowdy and shabby Miss Pettigrew is the "governess of last resort", turfed out of another job and facing a life living off soup handouts. Except that she intercepts a job as a "social secretary" to socialite, singer and actress Delysia Lafosse, giving her one last chance for employment, providing she can keep the agency in the dark. Lafosse, however, has a complicated life, balancing suitors and trying to work out which will be the best for her future well-being – wealth or fame or, maybe, love? The dilemma facing Lafosse is that she has a choice of three men – but Miss Pettigrew’s dilemma is more immediate; if she is to keep her job she must hide Delysia’s lover from her benefactor or risk them both being thrown out. And, if possible, she’d like to get something to eat.
This then is a welcome return to the kind of sophisticated comedies of Hollywood’s Golden age or that rush of early 1960s classics, the kind that only Priceless (2006 – inexplicably delayed UK release) seemed to match in recent years. While it can’t quite equal Priceless and the denouement is over foreshadowed, it nevertheless makes for a lean 92 minutes of entertainment. Again, like Priceless, money drives the characters, they hunger for riches in order to stay out of poverty. Being a British film there is, of course, a moment of poignant reflection of the fragility of the protagonists’ plights in a time of depression and naturally the ominous realities of war overshadow proceedings but this is fleeting and leads to some nice touches, such as shop dummies modelling lingerie but sporting gas masks.
At its heart Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day is a romantic screwball comedy, a parlour piece where characters rush from one room to another to avoid being discovered, where wealthy men lust after beautiful women and lavish them with gifts only for the object of their affections to find ways of meeting with their impoverished lovers. Central to the film is Miss Pettigrew herself, a moral, upstanding, vaguely prudish, somewhat dowdy woman forced into desperate action, played by a pitch perfect Frances McDormand, turning on a penny to move from outrage to determination.
Acting as a pivot for Miss Pettigrew’s actions is Amy Adams who would be the centre of attention in a traditional rom-com, following the Jane Austen mould of picking the right man for marriage. While she does fit that role there is a parallel in Miss Pettigrew that makes the film more interesting – Delysia is already glamorous so it is Miss Pettigrew who gets the makeover treatment, finding herself lavished with couture but still finding it impossible to get anything to eat.
Based upon the recently republished 1938 novel by Winifred Watson Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day is a feel-good, uplifting and genuinely funny comedy about the resilience and resourcefulness of women in times of trouble. Featuring fine performances throughout and excellent design, it may not be art but it is intelligent and enjoyable entertainment.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is currently playing in the UK. It will open next in Norway on 19 September.