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An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

PUBLISHED: 15:25 06 September 2018

Amy Adams as the flighty Delysia and Frances McDormand as the resourceful Guinevere Pettigrew in the war-time comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Photo: Focus Features

Amy Adams as the flighty Delysia and Frances McDormand as the resourceful Guinevere Pettigrew in the war-time comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Photo: Focus Features

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Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different

Amy Adams as the flighty Delysia and Frances McDormand as the resourceful Guinevere Pettigrew in the war-time comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Photo: Focus FeaturesAmy Adams as the flighty Delysia and Frances McDormand as the resourceful Guinevere Pettigrew in the war-time comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Photo: Focus Features

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day; dir: Bharat Nalluri; Starring: Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Shirley Henderson, Ciarán Hinds, Lee Pace, Mark Strong, Tom Payne, Christina Cole, Stephanie Cole. Cert: PG (2008)

In many ways Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day makes for a perfect companion piece to last week’s alternative great film Cyrano de Bergerac because it is all about someone with self-belief issues finding true love.

Like Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Miss Pettigrew is told with wit and stars Frances McDormand and Amy Adams have a lot of fun with the characterisation which gives the movie much of its charm.

Ciarán Hinds as the kindly and persistent Joe with Frances McDormand as the eponymous Guinevere Pettigrew in the war-time comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Photo: Focus FeaturesCiarán Hinds as the kindly and persistent Joe with Frances McDormand as the eponymous Guinevere Pettigrew in the war-time comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Photo: Focus Features

Set in London, during the early days of the Second World War, this apparently sweet confection of a movie has a surprisingly sharp and bittersweet undercurrent which gives the film some added grit and substance.

Guinevere Pettigrew (McDormand) is a nanny/governess who has fallen on hard times. She has been sacked from so many jobs that she’s effectively homeless. It is at this point she encounters the spoiled socialite Delysia (Adams), and transforms herself into a social secretary, juggling Delysia’s three boyfriends: the penniless musician (Pace), the young theatre producer (Payne) and the wealthy club owner (Strong). Delysia wants something different from each, and it’s up to Guinevere to help her choose.

Having retrieved Delysia’s bra after it gets entangled in a chandelier and made a great show of puffing on a cigar stub to convince one suspicious beau that it’s hers and not that of a rival, Guinevere’s world changes when she meets Delysia’s designer friend Edythe (Henderson) and her wealthy fiancé Joe (Hinds).

Amy Adams as the flighty Delysia and Frances McDormand as the resourceful Guinevere Pettigrew in the war-time comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Photo: Focus FeaturesAmy Adams as the flighty Delysia and Frances McDormand as the resourceful Guinevere Pettigrew in the war-time comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Photo: Focus Features

Writers David Magee (Life of Pi) and Simon Beaufoy (Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire) have created screenplay that has an infectiously freewheeling tone to it. The speed of the film replicates the chaotic developments in Guinevere’s life. You get the feeling that her sense of order is barely being kept in check. On little hic-cup could cause everything to spiral out of control.

On one level the film works as a brilliantly executed farce – there’s always a whirlwind of activity surrounding Guinevere and the self-absorbed Delysia, split-second judgements seem to control their destiny – and yet there’s a genuinely touching story to be told here about people realising their true worth and when they come to terms with who they are, when they are comfortable in their own skin, then they can find happiness.

Oscar favourites Frances McDormand and Amy Adams deliver two terrific central performances. Both women are living lives that don’t belong to them, and as they begin to see the reality, everything starts to change.

The war-time setting and the breezy script gives Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day the feeling of an Ealing Comedy being crossed with a witty Noel Coward play. On the surface it may seem rather silly and inconsequential but there is real depth to the writing which is given more substance by the intuitive performances of these two brilliant actresses.

Both Amy Adams and Frances McDormand are awards season regulars not only because they are good but because they are versatile performers. They choose their roles very carefully, making sure their characters are distinctive and the films they appear in don’t appear samey.

Amy Adams first made an impression in the Disney satire Enchanted before going to star in such diverse movies as Doubt, The Master, Charlie Wilson’s War, American Hustle and Arrival while Frances McDormand first came to our attention in Blood Simple and Raising Arizona before blowing us away in Fargo, Almost Famous, Burn After Reading and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Both actresses have been nominated for five Oscars, McDormand has won twice. This a strong female-driven story which explores how people can discover themselves when pushed outside their comfort zones.

Shirley Henderson supplies that needed sense of danger as Edythe, the upmarket fashion designer, who knows Guinevere’s secret and may or may not expose her. Frances McDormand make you care for Miss Pettigrew and a little deception is a small price to pay for genuine friendship, love and support.

The period setting is wonderfully recreated, based on a 1938 novel, which has given the film-makers the perfect template for the time. To be honest, it’s a film you can just lose yourself in time and again.

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