Thursday, March 27, 2008

'Miss Pettigrew': A Hollywood Gem Among the Cultural Ruins

By Dorothy Woodend, The Tyee. Posted March 25, 2008.

Frances McDormand and Amy Adams star in a fun, mad dash of a film.

Miss Guinevere Pettigrew isn't having a very good day. She's been fired from her latest job, she can't get another, and she's lost everything she owns. What's a good woman to do when she's down on her luck, except impersonate London's finest social secretary and ascend into the stratosphere of society?

Such is the premise of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a small, polished gem of a film starring Frances McDormand as the titular lady. When Miss Pettigrew finds herself in the employ of an up-and-coming actress, by the highly unlikely name of Delysia LaFosse, her life is quickly turned upside. One moment, she's down and out, the next, she rousting a naked young man from bed and smoking a stogie. Miss Pettigrew, however, is nothing if not adaptable, and like any woman of good sense, she immediately begins to sort out the mess that is Delysia's madcap life.

The story (based on the novel by Winifred Watson) is set in pre-Blitz London. It's life before the war, and while the nation girds for conflict, its young creatures are busily ungirding and hopping wildly from bed to bed.

Amy Adams fizzes

The most frantic of these dazzling young ladies is Miss Lafosse (played by the effervescent Amy Adams -- someone please bottle this woman: she's like human ginger ale). Delysia has three boyfriends, and thus three choices for her future. Each man potentially represents a different possibility: there's Nicky the cad, who owns the club where Delysia sings; Phil Goldman, the young and extremely wealthy producer; and the piano player, the delectable Michael, who has a heart of gold and not a penny to his name.

While Delysia juggles her men, and plans her future, which variously includes stardom, money and lots of pretty underwear, Miss Pettigrew is undergoing her own transformation, rediscovering the pleasures of life. Some of the most keen of these are embodied in the fine figure of Joe Blumstein (the wonderful CiarĂ¡n Hinds), a designer of women's lacy under things, who is possessed of an especially sharp eye for feminine quality.

No one is actually who they're pretending to be, whether it's Delysia, whose real name is Sarah Grub; Joe Blumstein, who actually started out designing men's socks; or Miss Pettigrew herself, the daughter of a clergyman, who has been reduced to eating in soup kitchens. The fun comes from watching people get what they deserve, almost in spite of themselves.

Great dames

An obvious homage to the great screwballs of the past, films in which women were zany, mad things, and men were sticks in the mud, Miss Pettigrew packs a surprising amount of heart into a silk charmeuse, marabou puff of a story. Art-directed to within an inch of its life, there is steel inside this frothy confection. Frances McDormand provides the iron spine of the film, but she has competition in the form of Amy Adams, who flings herself into the role of Delysia, like a whirling dervish of lust, ambition and grit all sealed up in a beribboned silk package.

Ms. Adams, who graced the abomination that was Enchanted, brings some of the same fairytale glitter with her, but there is a brittle, trembling core beneath all her flutter and helium voice antics. It might look like an old fashioned fairytale, but it's more of the Grimm Brothers variety than the Disney version. It is also, that most rare of things, a film in which female friendship is depicted with warmth and heart.


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