MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY **

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FRANCES MCDORMAND is fabulously versatile.

She’s one of the finest character actors of her generation.  She can move effortlessly between seamless portrayals of a North Dakota police officer investigating kidnapping and murder (FARGO) to a strict but loving mother of a teenage writer (ALMOST FAMOUS) to a hot, rebellious, sexually liberated record producer (LAUREL CANYON).

In the film adaptation of WINIFRED WATSON’S 1938 novel of the same name, she is GUINEVERE PETTIGREW, a drab middle aged governess whose penchant for outspokenness leaves her unable to keep a job.

Times are hard. It’s London just before the blitz. Knowing full well that her options are limited and the employment agency she’s registered with will do little to help her, she walks away with a client’s business card one day while she’s in the office.

The card in question belongs to DELYSIA LAFOSSE (nee Sarah Grubb, played by AMY ADAMS), an American singer/actor who is determined to conquer the West End before setting out for Hollywood.  Therein lies the key to the most magical 24 hours of Guinevere’s existence.

She presents herself as someone sent by the agency and, as Delysia is in desperate need of a professional assistant to organize her life, she agrees to the arrangement immediately. She also orders up a new wardrobe and a complete makeover for her recently acquired employee.

Delysia is juggling three extremely attractive lovers: PHIL GOLDMAN (TOM PAYNE), the son of an important theatrical producer, NICK (MARK STRONG), the rich, influential owner of a nightclub where she performs and MICHAEL (LEE PACE), her piano accompanist and arranger.

Delysia is a liberated woman well before her time. She’s not interested in a conventional life or being tied down. Artistic success on a grand scale is her goal. She loves Michael but she’s not willing to admit it.

Not even to herself.

What she does know definitively is that he has no money or connections so his feelings for her are all he has to offer. Phil can help with her career. Nick is a ladies man who’s been around the block and knows how to please her. He’s also willing to provide her with a roof over her head. 

But the bond that she has with Michael is problematic. He’s strong willed, passionate and he knows what he wants – and what he wants is HER.
He adores her but he’s hip to every little feminine wile and trick that she can dish out.

He’s not only furious with her for carrying on with two other men (as he’s well aware), but he wants her to behave, to commit to him completely and to travel to New York where they can concentrate on their mutual aspirations as musicians.

Delysia will not bend.

LEE PACE is going to be a very big star. He has the charisma and looks of a classic matinee idol. He only has a few brief scenes but he came dangerously close to stealing the picture. You can’t take your eyes off of him for a millisecond.

Even before her glamorous transformation, Guinevere ends up attracting the attention of JOE (CIARAN HINDS), a warm, charming designer of women’s undergarments. Now if only he didn’t have that on/off engagement to that ruthless social climber…

FRANCES McDORMAND is solid and very believable as the blossoming GUINEVERE. The only thing that was remotely inauthentic was her barely discernable English accent.

AMY ADAMS is quite impressive in this film. She lets you see the steely ambition and unstoppable determination under the fluffiness and dusty pink lingerie.

The production design (by the fantastic SARAH GREENWOOD) is absolutely jaw dropping. Nick’s luxurious Art Deco apartment is particularly grand. The clothes, the cars and the architecture are all flawlessly evocative. Every frame is richly detailed. But good acting from a fine cast in lovely surroundings can not make up for a cliched script and pedestrian direction.

We’ve seen these characters and this milieu many times before.  Despite the positives, it’s all boringly predictable and, ultimately, completely forgettable.

Except, of course, for LEE PACE.

4 Responses to “MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY **”

  1. Your review reminded me of something I liked about the movie. There’s a scene ***spoiler*** where Adams reveals herself as lowly Sarah Grubb and she lays it out there about how close she really is to failure and to living on the street.

    For her, life isn’t so simple as merely choosing the man she loves. She’s not just a climber…well she is, but the alternative is pretty sketchy.
    ***end spoiler***

    I wonder though. She’s set up as a liberated woman, but the ending is awfully conservative and old fashioned.

  2. Miranda Wilding Says:

    Craig, you make a very valuable point. One thing I understand now about writing film reviews is that, even though you have carte blanche and editorial control on your own blog, you don’t have to go on forever. It’s not really necessary.

    ******SPOILERS*******

    I did want to say something about one of the interesting and positive things about the screenplay. But I didn’t want to go on for pages, especially when I wasn’t THAT fond of the film.

    Even though Delysia is a young, attractive star in waiting and Guinevere (at least at the beginning) is a middleaged frump, they do bond on a realistic level and their situations are far more similar than you can comprehend at the outset.

    They never go into the back story of Guinevere’s family aside from the fact that she’s a vicar’s daughter. There are only a couple of mentions of the one lover that she had and they’re basically used to move the plot forward. So (apparently) she has no close friends, no family and no man that she can rely on. Ms. McDormand plays her as being well into her forties, which in pre World War II London would have been LONG past the English rose stage.

    She would have been labelled a spinster at that point and her life would certainly have not held many pleasant surprises. It was a very different era for women back then, particularly women of a certain age. To add insult to injury, she couldn’t even find steady employment. That kind of desperation was what led her to run off with Delysia’s business card at the employment agency.

    Delysia, for her part, has always used feminine wiles to get what she wants. This is something that never really went out of style.

    But considering that women couldn’t even vote in a civilized society until the twentieth century and most corporations and professions didn’t take women terribly seriously until the 1970s (unless, of course, you wanted to be a teacher, a nurse, an office worker, a nanny or something similar – actors and models were not given a great deal of regard in any case), sex appeal and manipulation were the only real power that most women had available to them. So Delysia is determined to make the most out of what she has.

    In that scene in the car with Guinevere, she makes it abundantly clear that the choices available to her are hardly that simple and clear cut. This young woman has obviously been poor and she’s determined not to face that again.

    Nick gave her that apartment and she surely wouldn’t have had that if she weren’t sleeping with him. It’s not sordid to any degree. She and Nick both like and are wildly attracted to each other. But Delysia is aware that it’s a delicate balancing act. She has to keep those balls rolling.

    As much as I love the fact that Delysia is liberated, this is a fictional film – not a documentary. So naturally this is a somewhat exaggerated fantasy. In the 30s there was not only any reliable birth control but your options were EXTREMELY limited back then if you were with child.

    Being an unwed mother was shameful. It could ruin your life quite easily. You could have the baby and put it up for adoption or marry the man (or choose one of them) IF he would have you. There was no safe way to terminate a pregnancy unless your family was wealthy. Money buys a lot of things.

    All of these consequences were rather grim. So I’m sure there were any number of hot, passionate women who were far more careful in that particular era than they wanted to be. Someone back then who was realistically like Delysia would be acutely aware that she was walking on thin ice ALL THE TIME.

    As far as the ending is concerned…

    From a realistic standpoint, I think Michael would have been very hard to resist. Phil was 19. Nick was a ladies man whose attraction to Delysia was temporary and entirely physical. Michael was gorgeous, sensitive, caring and he genuinely loved her. They had a lot in common and she called Michael her best friend. She also referred to him as passionate so it was obvious that it went a lot deeper and was much more exciting than she wanted to give him credit for.

    It seems that the main areas of contention were that she didn’t want to commit and she wanted to stay in London and do theatre while he wanted to travel to New York and concentrate on their musical careers.

    The way the screenplay was set up Delysia could’ve been on her own at the end. But she couldn’t have ended up with the other two. When the screenplay sets you up with the perfect man there really is no other way to go.

    Besides, they are written as two very strong willed people who both get what they want. Sure, they’ll make each other crazy. But there’s a bond between them that they can not ignore.

    You just know once New York has a savage cold spell that Delysia will talk Michael into striking out for Hollywood. She can make films OR sing. But he can play the piano anywhere.

    You don’t think just because she loves this guy that she’s going to give up that easily, do you?

  3. Another thing you might notice about writing reviews is that your opinions of a movie can change after the fact and even while writing a review.

    I bring this up because it sounds from all the things you’ve said here and at LiC that you may have warmed up to the movie a little bit. True?

    I don’t consider this to be inconsistent. Movies are a living breathing thing and one of the hard parts about reviewing is carving in stone how you feel at a precise moment in time. It’s an interesting challenge.

  4. Miranda Wilding Says:

    I’ll be as honest as I can about this. I could change my mind about Miss Pettigrew IF I saw it again. But I don’t intend to.

    This is not to say that I’m completely dug in about all of my opinions. But I don’t really change my mind that often, especially about art.

    Anything can come along and alter your previous impression of a film. I’m discussing Miss Pettigrew because everyone else is talking about it: largely because it’s a new release and I also saw it. I’m writing about it at length because I’m attempting to express my feelings in detail. Plus I’ve only seen a couple of 2008 film releases at this time.

    So, sad to say, I gave it two stars and I’m sticking to my guns.

    ******SPOILERS******

    We’ve all seen this story a million times over in one form or another. I said in a comment above that, unless the screenplay had a major restructuring, Delysia and Michael ending up together made perfect sense. I have no quarrel with Guinevere’s happy ending. I liked this character and I felt that she deserved a bright future. But the circumstances were strictly movie fantasy. I thought the last little bit of conversation she had with Joe was rather tacky.

    The pluses were the performances (FRANCES McDORMAND and LEE PACE), the sets, the cinematography and the costumes. Still a two star picture to me.

    Sorry, Craig…

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