A comedy of manners that’s … well, mannered.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

on March 07, 2008 by Chad Greene

If Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day comes across as a 1930s comedy of manners, that’s because it’s based on … well, a 1930s comedy of manners—specifically, a same-named novel written by the late Winifred Watson. (Which was, to be fair, republished in 2000 to considerably critical acclaim. But still.) Unfortunately for the filmmakers who have adapted it for the silver screen in the 2000s, cinematic comic sensibilities have evolved over the ensuing seven decades.

Focus Features is billing Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day as a comedy, which it is in a strictly classical sense, but most modern audiences will find the laugh-out-loud moments few and far between. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with the always-superlative Frances McDormand’s performance as Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a dowdy, down-and-out governess who manages to snag a position as a social secretary to an aspiring American actress with the unlikely name of Delysia Lafosse. Or that the always-adorable Amy Adams isn’t perfectly flighty as Delysia, who is involved not only with Nick (Mark Strong), the volatile owner of the cabaret where she performs (and also the luxurious London flat where she lives), and Phil (Tom Payne), the foppish infant impresario who Delysia is trying to convince that she has the, um, passion to play the lead in his premiere production, but also with Michael (Lee Pace), the fiercely romantic pianist who went to jail for trying to break into the Tower of London to steal a diamond big enough to impress her.

And that’s not to say that one can’t sit back and admire the way screenwriters David Magee and Simon Beaufoy weave appropriate period-piece banter into their classically structured script. Take, for instance, the early scene in which the straight-laced Miss Pettigrew begins to feel as though she isn’t the person to manage a social life that even Delysia describes as an ongoing crisis.

“I’m the daughter of a clergyman,” she stammers by way of explanation.

“Poor you,” her employer replies, sympathy evident in her voice.

The cast and crew, however, are very much like Miss Pettigrew herself, who somehow manages—with plainspoken common sense—to accomplish everything that’s asked of her by the end of the second act, only to find that none of it is right. They have managed to adapt Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. But they were asked to do it 70 years to late, resulting in a comedy of manners that comes across as … well, mannered.

Distributor: Focus
Cast: Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Lee Pace, Ciaran Hinds, Shirley Henderson, Mark Strong and Tom Payne
Director: Bharat Nalluri
Screenwriters: David Magee and Simon Beaufoy
Producers: Nellie Bellflower and Stephen Garrett
Genre: Romantic comedy
Rating: PG-13 for some partial nudity and innuendo
Running Time: 92 min.
Release Date: March 7

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