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Fathers and Daughters:
In Their Own Words
by Mariana Cook
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day"
Period romantic comedies about high society seem always to be done at a feverish pace. The people talk fast, as though quick-wittedness is some kind of coin-of-the-realm in earlier days -- the style that sells the "period."
Consider "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" and "Sylvia," films that ofttime branch into breathless circles of class superiority and, the worst of the lot, Stephen Fry's execrable "Bright Young Things." There's also "Capote," but at least his was an academic as well as an elite social crowd.
Alas, Miss Pettigrew, though a commoner, travels through fashionable precincts as well -- but as an employee. The non-stop hyper-pace of her society betters evoke a need for a tranquillizer or a dramamine (though once you get accustomed to the farcical tempo, clarity follows, and with some rewards for the effort).
In 1939 London, when the Nazi threat looms large, jobs are scarce for everyone, and that includes for governesses. Unfortunately, it's at this time that Miss Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) isn't pleasing her lady of the house and she's thrown out of her job and onto the street.
Making her way to the employment office, she confronts her old employment office nemesis who, for reasons of seeing too much of Pettigrew and too often, won't send her out again to interview for another job. Through desperation and sleight of hand, luckless Guinevere grabs a note with the name and address of a possible employer.
This turns out to be none other than Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), an American actress and singer whose world is one of high glamour, rushing ambition, juggling men and securing a major part in junior impresario Phil Goldman's (Tom Payne) new show. Delysia sees Guinevere Pettigrew as the answer to her prayers, a compatriot who can help her manage her dizzying life and loves. There's no exact name for the position but, as the relationship becomes defined, it's to be referred to as "social secretary."
The immediate task of which is to tactly (and tactically) expunge one man from the apartment when another is on his way up. This tricky subterfuge (which worked so well for Shakespeare and playrights before and after) is to immediately be worked upon nightclub owner Nick (Mark Strong) whose apartment Delysia is living in, and pianist Michael (Lee Pace) who may just be the one who loves the glamour babe for who she really is when she's not playing the "role" of Belle at the Ball.
The obvious intent here is to create a whirl of comedic hi-jinks within the glittery world of wealth, fashion and class: who's got it and who's after it, with the two women feeding off each other's weaknesses and strengths. The action is designed to bring them to their ultimate destinies in the scope of one day, a challenge that screenwriters David Magee and Simon Beaufoy were capable of delivering as a frilly fantasy with wit, charm and a sip of meaning about being true to who you are.
Magee would seem to have the right stuff, this being his assignment after the remarkably successful "Finding Neverland." Collaborator Beaufoy offers a comedy side, with the credit of having written 1997's surprise hit from Blighty, "The Full Monty." Director Bharat Nalluri's creds come from Emmy nominations and, perhaps, an absorption of Stephen Fry's synthetic, effete style, for better or worse. There's a running gag on the title character's hunger and zany inability to eat the morsels she manages to grasp, and a tear-inducing song delivered by the amazing Ms. Adams as a climactic set piece. (See link to composer Paul Englishby below)
McDormand, she of such fare as "Fargo" (1996) and "Mississippi Burning" (1988), has the requisite skill to make something out of anything worth tackling, though some fans are bound to question the choice here. Perfect casting, on the other hand, goes to Adams. Her Delysia Lafosse may not be all that different than her fantasy character in "Enchanted" but her likability is affirmed by this sequence of roles. Now for something real, we hope she's thinking.
In other significant roles, the gauzy-voice Shirley Henderson plays snobbish Edythe, stern fashionista and Guinevere's antagonist, while Ciaran Hinds is Edythe's hesitant paramour and a big-time designer. With reliable solidity, this actor justifies why he's being cast for everything he can schedule. His role here as a surprise connection to Guinevere is a more substantial element in the screenplay than the opportunities provided him in "There Will Be Blood," for example, and the movie is better for it.
Adapted from Winifred Watson's novel published in 1938, it's all about style, and a Cinderella-ish play on balancing the lure of make-believe against reality in the quest for happiness. According to the script for such underweight material, everyone pretty much gets what they want, including the homeless Miss Pettigrew. Everything goes down like a rich souffle', with about as much to think about afterward, once Miss Pettigrew's "Day" is over.
~~ Jules Brenner