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Career Advancement 

Director Bharat Nalluri's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is set in the 1930s and achieves the sensibility of films made in that odd era in the shadowed valley between two devastating wars. Juxtaposed to the stark economic deprivation that raged across the globe was an entertainment industry that glittered with shiny cars and bejeweled women draped in furs and radiated a hope for better days. In the spirit of Depression-era Hollywood, Miss Pettigrew is predictable but also sweet and satisfying. Adapted from Winifred Watson's novel and written for the screen by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day stars a reliably terrific Frances McDormand and the kinetically beautiful Amy Adams channeling Marilyn Monroe's breathy ditsyness. The narrative concerns the way a homeless woman's pluck involves her in the romantic complications of an ambitious starlet who is ready to use her considerable physical charms in the furtherance of her acting and singing career. McDormand is Guinevere Pettigrew, an unmarried pastor's daughter with deceased parents who has just lost her most recent position as a governess. In the film's opening moments, Miss Pettigrew also loses her small suitcase that holds her only possessions beyond the clothes she is wearing. She is penniless, hungry and desperate, and her urgent circumstances lead her to behave in ways she normally wouldn't. She fakes a job reference and falsely represents herself as having professional experience that she lacks.

The available position is in the employ of Adams' Delysia Lafosse, who is looking for a 'social secretary" because she has heard that all successful movie stars have one. Since she hasn't a clue what a social secretary might actually do, she's not bothered that Miss Pettigrew lacks any credentials for being one. At the moment of Miss Pettigrew's arrival at Delysia's swank penthouse apartment, Delysia is in a swivet because she must get rid of a rich and well-connected playboy, aptly named Phil Goldman (Tom Payne), who is lying blissfully naked in her bed. Phil must go before a rich but pugnacious playboy, aptly named Nick Colderelli (Mark Strong), arrives for a morning tryst. Delysia would like to resist Nick's expected advances, but he has given her a singing job at his nightclub, and he is paying the rent on her apartment. Moreover, as Delysia understands about herself, she's a pretty pitiful resister.

Consequently, Miss Pettigrew's essential first assignment is to expedite Phil's departure, an added challenge because she has so little experience with naked men. And no sooner has she gotten Phil into the elevator than she has to blunt Nick's suspicions about the cigar stub he finds in an ashtray. Delysia is not without her talents, but housekeeping and punctuality are not among them. Lies are told, oaths are uttered, distasteful acts are committed and deft, sharply choreographed comedy ensues.

Meanwhile, the wolf is at the door. The setting is London, 1939, and in the background we see newspaper headlines about failing negotiations between England and Hitler's Germany. In the foreground, we have the soup lines from which Miss Pettigrew emerges. The world is a scary place, and that fact is central to Delysia's calculated career maneuvers. Though she is young and Miss Pettigrew is middle-aged, the former gorgeous and the latter plain, the two actually have critical things in common. Both come from modest circumstances, and both are on their own. Miss Pettigrew has resigned herself to an ordinary life, but she surprises herself with her adaptability. Delysia dreams of stardom, and she uses her sexuality as a tool to get what she wants. But the picture forgives her this from the outset because like Miss Pettigrew, her survival is at stake.

On the whole, the film might have more staying power if it explored, even in its comic vein, these issues of expediency more extensively. But in the end, the picture is a combination of the ugly duckling story and a come-to-your-senses romantic morality tale. Under Delysia's tutelage, Miss Pettigrew blossoms and attracts the attentions of wealthy clothier Joe Blumfield (Ciaran Hinds). And yielding to Miss Pettigrew's superior wisdom, Delysia lets penniless and powerless piano player Michael Pardue (Lee Pace) back onto her crowded romantic playing field. In short, the picture chooses to be safe rather than edgy. But that doesn't mean it fails to please; it is charming in each of its brisk 95 minutes.

click to enlarge Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) and Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) are an odd couple but each in her own way works to make ends meet in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - 2008 FOCUS FEATURES
  • 2008 Focus Features
  • Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) and Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) are an odd couple but each in her own way works to make ends meet in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
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