For an obscure tale of a virginal London governess who discovers her true calling running interference for a giddy nightclub singer, the 1938 English novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day has enjoyed a pretty lively renaissance. Knocked off in six weeks by Newcastle homemaker Winifred Watson while she washed dishes under the looming clouds of World War II, the book covers one mutually empowering day in an unlikely alliance between an out-of-work nanny and an aspiring actress. With hindsight, it's easy to imagine the pleasure this double Cinderella story — set in a ritzy penthouse flat frequented by gussied-up guys and dolls of alluringly dubious character — gave to homebound British women scrambling to keep body and soul together through the Depression and the war. Other than the fact that we could all use a nice escape fantasy now and then, I'm not sure what the appeal would be to the far more emancipated audience targeted by the female-oriented Persephone Press, which republished the book in 2001. But it must have sold well enough to warrant a pert little movie adaptation with its beady eye fixed on the global market.
Which is to say, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is another in that flourishing new species: the all-stops-out period costume drama, as ineluctably English as tea and toast, casted, crewed, and crafted entirely by Brits — except for its all-American leads. Don't get me wrong, Amy Adams is rapidly emerging as our wittiest ingénue since Goldie Hawn (if you didn't see her channeling Snow White in Enchanted, you missed one of the slyest Disney spoofs I've ever seen), and there's almost nothing Frances McDormand can't do with a blank stare. But watching McDormand stretch out diphthongs that nonetheless obstinately refuse to budge from mid-Atlantic, all I could think was, What, the Emilys Blunt and Watson weren't available? (Adams' character is conveniently retooled into an American.)
Dowdy in head-to-toe brown, McDormand is Miss Pettigrew, a desperate "governess of last resort" and social klutz who stumbles into the penthouse apartment of Adams' Delysia Lafosse, a chaotic flibbertigibbet in silk negligees who's juggling several unappetizing swains — and neglecting one good one — in the hope of landing her first major role. The rest is unrelieved cocktail parties and cabarets, floor-length deco gowns and gold-plated moldings, interrupted by the obligatory shopping excursion in which Miss P. gets the obligatory extreme makeover, hones some killer people skills she never knew she had, and in return gently instructs her confused young boss in the elements of self-respect. (Both leads are thoroughly upstaged by the incomparable Shirley Henderson, stealing scenes right and left in a minor role as a fashion-industry minx with divide and conquer on her mind.)
Director Bharat Nalluri, along with screenwriters David Magee and Simon Beaufoy (writer of the astonishingly lucrative The Full Monty, whose glib perkiness Miss Pettigrew echoes), conscientiously add a somber overlay of war and poverty here and there, with Yip Harburg's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" spelling Cole Porter on the soundtrack. Men come and go in tuxes and skinny mustaches, but as with all chick flicks worth their weight in Oscar potential, the real love story discreetly unfolding here is between Miss P. and Delysia (real name, Sarah Grubb), whose face lights up more radiantly for her new friend than for designated love interest Joe the suave underwear designer (Ciarán Hinds). So inescapable is the charge between the two vulnerable, strong women that, backing down into a radically distorting departure from the book, the movie dispatches Delysia to New York, leaving Miss Pettigrew to find love with a man she barely knows.
Winifred Watson had comic verve to burn and a sharp ear for flapper dialogue — were she alive today, she'd likely make Diablo Cody nervous. But though her ears would probably burn to hear me say it, what makes her novel a delight is the unselfconscious guilelessness of its homoerotic subtext. Nalluri has made a much more worldly movie but one so finally bowdlerized that, by omission, it argues the case for Watson's innocent sensuality.