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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Resourceful Miss P

Sorting out her mistress’ affairs

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FrancesMcDormand strays far from the sardonic country of the Coen Brothers, her regular employers, for a jolly romp in 1930s London, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. McDormand stretches her acting range as Guinevere Pettigrew, a dowdy failure as a domestic servant. Her previous mistress calls her “the governess of last resort” while sacking her, sending her into a future where uncertainty shades into bleak prospects.

Poor Guinevere, with her mousy hair, sensible shoes and rust-colored coat and dress, is reduced to eating at the soup kitchen. Everything happens to her; none of it good. But this vicar’s daughter, seemingly bound for impoverished spinsterhood, is more resourceful than one imagines at a glance. Swiping a business card off the desk of her employment agency, which no longer wants anything to do with her, Guinevere calls on the posh apartment of a vivacious, American, glamour-gal expatriate, Delysia Lafosse (Enchanted’s Amy Adams).

Thinking she would be employed as a nanny, Guinevere discovers that the “boy” she is to fetch from bed is actually Delysia’s stark-naked lover. And he’s not Delysia’s only boyfriend. She has three all totaled, one of whom is heading into the lobby of her building for the elevator. Once again, Guinevere’s resourcefulness and clear head saves the day. When boyfriend No. 2 demands to know how a strange cigar took residence in the ashtray, Guinevere gamely plucks it up, lighting the stogie and taking a drag, holding down a coughing fit with her stiff upper lip.

And the bedroom and ballroom farce continues as Guinevere helps Delysia juggle her complicated social schedule and discover the meaning of love. Directed by Bharat Nalluri, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is reminiscent of Hugh Laurie-Stephen Fry’s popular ’90s TV comedy, “Jeeves and Wooster.” Not unlike the tireless Jeeves, Guinevere becomes the sensible servant who sorts out her employer’s affairs, hovering on the outskirts of London’s glamorous social whirl. The jazzage soundtrack with its tom-tom drumming keeps the mood light and swinging through many scenes. The settings exude high elegance. Delysia’s duplex flat is an Art Deco palace of gilt, marble and lacquer.

There are moments of pathos in the shadow of the glittering cocktail parties and nightclubs. Delysia is really a steelworker’s daughter putting on an extravagant show, a moth fluttering around the bright flame of celebrity and wealth. Two of her boyfriends are well-heeled cads; the third has no money but is her best friend. Guinevere, like many women of her generation, lost her one true love to World War I. The newspapers are already warning of World War II. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day isn’t always as snappy in tempo as it ought to be, and there are better examples of its genre— which might be called the cheeky side of the British upper class between the wars—but it will do. Miss Pettigrew is entertaining, mildly amusing and unapologetic in its pursuit of romance and happy endings for deserving hearts.
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