by Erin GardinerThis film is a romantic comedy. But don’t click out of this page because of the million different expectations and clichés that just flooded the foreground of your mind. For a film that fits into such a widely recognized and commercialized genre, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day fulfills very little of the typical romantic comedy stereotypes.
The setting is London, just before World War II breaks out. The perspective is that of Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand), an awkward and penniless clergyman’s daughter who is looking for work as a governess. Miss Pettigrew goes about her life clearly pretty uncomfortably. She collides with a stranger in the street, all her possessions go flying, and she moves to hurriedly pick them up until she hears the words “They’ll have me back in prison for this!” come from the man’s mouth. At the mention of the word “prison,” she immediately backs away before turning and sprinting in the opposite direction, despite the man’s genuine insistence that it was “nothing serious.” Later in the evening, she waits in the long soup kitchen line for a small bowl of food, which then crashes to the cold ground after another collision with a stranger. Just in the film’s opening, you see a surprising lack of potential for any kind of romance and more just a sad story of poverty in pre-war London. But the next morning, Miss Pettigrew decides to abandon her strict moral code for a split second, and the rest of her day is a wild adventure that hilariously contrasts with her quiet nature and mud-brown clothes.
In her desperation, she steals what she believes to be a governess position from another employee. She discovers, however, that Miss Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) is not in need of a governess, but a social secretary. Miss Pettigrew doesn’t realize this until Delysia asks her to go wake Phil (Tom Payne) up. Expecting Phil to be the child she has been “hired” to look after, Miss Pettigrew bursts into the room and finds a man who is definitely not Delysia’s son—to her great surprise. Delysia seems to be looking for guidance, as she cannot decide which of her three lovers she should choose. As an actress and singer looking for a career, her struggle is between potential fame and real love. This whirlwind, high-class life in which people actually need social secretaries is foreign to Miss Pettigrew, and she is left literally spinning about the room as Delysia bolts back and forth in an effort to get Phil, her young producer boyfriend, out of the apartment before Nick (Mark Strong), her other boyfriend who actually owns the apartment, comes home. This was the first time Miss Pettigrew met Delysia, and the plot only gets more comically ridiculous from there. And Michael (Lee Pace) hasn’t even shown up yet.
Actually, that’s somewhat of a lie. Michael has already shown up. Remember overly- polite prison guy? That’s Michael. What does he add to the story, you ask? He is, you guessed it, Delysia’s third boyfriend. He is also, from the start, the most practical and obvious choice for Delysia. Unlike Phil and Nick, it’s clear that Michael loves her for pretty genuine reasons. He also plays the piano beautifully. What more could a girl want besides love and a brilliant accompanist? The audience knows all this and Miss Pettigrew knows as well. She refers to him as “magnificent” the first time she meets him. Of course, by convention, Delysia has to spend about an hour of film time anxiously going back and forth between what she thinks is right, before finally making her decision.
Luckily, the real focus of the film is on Miss Pettigrew’s reactions and perceptions of all this drama. She is a passive, awkward and anxious protagonist who stumbles into a world of superficiality and romance. In this way, she is a great bridge for viewers. Miss Pettigrew is literally confronted with the seemingly artificial drama that we have all learned to associate with the overdone genre films that are generally pretty successful today. What’s different about this film is that Miss Pettigrew is completely aware that everything she is witnessing is totally preposterous. She is physically in the middle of everything that is happening, but mentally she is far outside the kind of thinking that every other character seems to have. Instead of admiring characters like Delysia and Michael, and wishing we were them, we get to relate to Miss Pettigrew and laugh, wide-eyed and unbelieving, at everyone else. It’s incredibly entertaining and refreshing to see a character that subtly mocks the culture that is usually promoted through today’s popular films.