by Jay Seaver
Mrs. Pettigrew doesn't initially look like much, and that applies to both the character and the film itself. And in some ways, they aren't much; a simple woman and a spritely period comedy. There's beauty in their simplicity, though, along with an awareness that simple doesn't necessarily have to mean stupid.Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a middle-aged governess, who finds herself homeless after being fired from her last of last chances. She swiped a name before being dismissed from her agency, though, and shows up the next morning at the apartment of actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), who was not looking for a nanny but a social secretary (though she doesn't quite know what one does), whose first job is disposing of Phil Goodman (Tom Payne), a young would-be theater producer. That's not the only man in Delysia's life; there's also Nick Colderelli (Mark Strong), who owns the nightclub where she sings, and Michael Pardue (Lee Pace), the piano player there who was recently released from jail. Then there's Delysia's friend Edythe (Shirley Henderson) and her fiancé Joe (Ciarán Hinds), who make life difficult for Guinevere in their own ways.
"A throwback charmer."
The film takes place in 1930s London, and feels like a film of that period, with beautiful Art Deco style, women in fabulous gowns, and nightclubs full of jazz and sophistication. It's wiser than that, though. It's keenly aware that those glamorous images were mirages into which audiences were escaping, with the reality being the Depression. There's a dark recurring joke about Guinevere not getting a chance to eat, and the desperation she feels is palpable. Similarly, it's also the eve of World War II, and there's a wonderful moment between Guinevere and Joe late in the movie, sharing their memories of the last war as the younger characters cheer the planes flying overhead.
As you might gather from that last paragraph, McDormand is giving her usual fine performance. There is, from the beginning, something rebellious about her that doesn't quite fit with her nervous, spinstery exterior, and it's a delight to watch her come out of her shell without ever losing her grounding. McDormand handles the trick of being very funny while also being very serious like it hasn't tripped a great many actors up. Amy Adams, on the other hand, often seems lighter than air as Delysia, moving from event to event like she was blown by a strong wind and rapid-firing her lines in classic screwball style. She does, on occasion, also get serious, giving Delysia self-awareness without making her less of a naif. Neither part is a particular departure from the actress's recent work, but that just lets them concentrate on the details that make Guinevere and Delysia come alive.
The rest of the cast is good, too, although their characters are a distant third in priority behind Guinevere and Delysia. Shirley Henderson's Edythe is maybe the most complex, rather callow and selfish and yet still strangely vulnerable. The men form a continuum along which the wisdom of age and experience can be plotted, from Payne's spoiled and childish Phil to Hinds's Joe, a much more grounded fellow than the usual male character who designs lingerie for a living. Pace shows us a charming if battered romantic, while Strong makes Nick altogether more pragmatic.
Director Bharat Nalluri and company make a nifty little movie. There's actually quite a lot of story packed into Guinevere's twenty-four hours and our ninety minutes, with characters and plotlines darting in and out quickly enough for us to sympathize with how dizzy it might make her, even while slowing it down just enough at points so that actual important information is quite clear. They never lose sight of the fact that they're making a comedy, even though there are frequent and needed detours into the less cheery aspects of the period. They don't overdose on realism, though, so that when things end in the rushed but tidy manner of a stage comedy, it feels entirely appropriate.Yes, "Miss Pettigrew" could be more realistic. It's perhaps just a little more sophisticated than the 1930s films it pays homage to. Its faithfulness to those films' ideals and aesthetics is a great part of its charm, though, and it would gain very little by being more complex than it is.
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originally posted: 04/06/08 09:47:30