Nothing sets my teeth on edge like farce. The over-manufactured antics of Noises Off and other extreme modes of the genre have never rung my bells. This aversion is so ingrained that I can’t even enjoy the amphetamine repartee of venerable old screwball comedies like His Girl Friday; I have an allergy to madcap that was diagnosed years ago, failed to respond to treatment, and lingers like chronic reflux. There’s something about “stage humor” that gives me indigestion — probably because it’s the cheapest, most mishandled tactic in university theater productions and other amateur blights on Shakespeare (and yes, my bile is likely a surfeit produced by my own four-year, full-on, magna cum laude immersion in college theater, and it makes me a peevish dinner guest to this day). Stage humor that honors its Commedia dell’Arte roots is incredibly hard to pull off either onscreen or under a proscenium. It consists of more than running around a dressed set and shrieking out-of-breath ejaculations and looking cute in a pinafore, but dammit if that’s what we usually get when the mannerisms start flying and the doors start slamming. So when the shenanigans erupted five minutes into Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I immediately regretted accepting this assignment (the noble “blank slate” approach to film reviewing can be perilous). But while the first twenty minutes of the movie are about as pleasant — to someone like me — as watching cats frazzled around at warp speed in a giant popcorn-maker, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day gradually evolves into a dark, dignified sort of anti-farce that calmed my jerking knee, soothed my resentment and won me over.
I don’t credit the film’s two leads with this unprecedented phenomenon, though Amy Adams and Frances McDormand both do fine work with their roles. Adams plays Delysia Lafosse, the daughter of an American steelworker trying to worm her way into London’s 1930s entertainment scene with minimal talent, decent looks and ferocious determination. McDormand plays Miss Pettigrew, the “governess of last resort” who just got canned from her last job thanks to a cloud of bad luck that trails her like mothball stank. The governess figure of British fiction is the perfect foil to the shiny, sexual, upwardly-mobile starlet. Caught between the worlds of servants and gentry, the governess existed in a de-sexed social limbo walled off by pity and propriety — not a wife, not quite a mother, and generally considered unmarriageable even as she was paid to teach our daughters how to be good wives to future husbands. In this sense, the governess is traditionally a paradoxical figure, and the role of Miss Pettigrew is cast as a paradox (McDormand’s jolie-laide appeal is central to the character’s history) and written as one. She’s a jinxed woman who can turn everyone else’s luck around, solve their problems and push them towards their goals while she herself teeters on the verge of destitution — soup kitchens and all. Because Miss Pettigrew is so good at managing madcap in the film’s opening confusion (which involves the panicked ejection of one lover as another lover walks up the stairs), Delysia hires her as a social secretary and relies on the older woman to guide her through an obstacle course of suitors and career choices which are boggling up her brain. There’s Nick (Mark Strong), the manager of the Scarlet Peacock club, who can offer Delysia connections on the cabaret front, gold-lamé gowns and an art-deco roof over her head; Phil (Tom Payne), the son of a musical magnate about to cast the lead in a new musical; and Michael (Lee Pace), the humble pianist, who is also Delysia’s ex-fiancé and who just completed 30 days of bread and water for trying to shop for an engagement ring among the Tower of London’s crown jewels.
Everyone hits the right notes for their characters and fleshes out standard farce set-ups — even McDormand finds her place in the scheme as a sober straight-woman designed to temper Adams’ flighty, over-mannered starlet. Adams manages to push some humanity to the sequined surface of her character, and McDormand’s governess is a fully-formed person birthed out of a cliché. But regardless of how competently the leads maintain the comedy’s rhythms and improve the types they’ve been cast to play, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day doesn’t suck its meager substance from their performances or those of Delysia’s three suitors. The film is, after all, a farce overlaying a romantic comedy (complete with makeover scene and train-station reunion), and unless that’s your thing, it’ll depend on more than Adams’ cutesy faces, or lotharios tripping over chairs, to earn your respect. What makes the movie gel — what gives it a smidge of weight — is the addition of Ciarán Hinds and Shirley Henderson. The moment they come onscreen, the film stops spinning sugar, takes on meat, and becomes entrancing (it doesn’t hurt that the 1930s production design is rich enough to make David Lynch a little jealous). Hinds, who knocked it out of the park as Rome’s Julius Caesar (and as the Mayor of Casterbridge in the BBC’s definitive take on the novel), has the presence equal to ten other characters and the kind of gravitas that can animate the deadest fish of a tale. And Shirley Henderson has been my freaking girl since Hamish Macbeth and can do no wrong in any guise, as far as I’m concerned (so no objectivity here). It was fireworks and rainbows when she manifested, in fact — some recompense for going into a film blind and getting blindsided by my least favorite genre. Henderson is small and shrewd as Edythe Dubarry, another standard farce character type; she’s the cunning, cutting snob whose fashion-world ambitions are as molten as Delysia’s marquee dreams, and who fills a vintage frock and a set of pumps with gritty elegance. Hinds is the lingerie designer who thinks he loves Edythe — possibly — but would really rather just make gentlemen’s socks and attach himself to someone a little more tangible. When he dances with Miss Pettigrew in the fabulous waltz scene, I was carried away as movies are supposed to carry us away — it was pure, multicolored affect, with butterfly sleeves and swinging brass, and it worked like gangbusters on my ovulating carcass (results may vary) and made me almost, briefly, love this film.
The bedrock talents of Hinds and Henderson give director Bharat Nalluri something to build on, and their oil-black heads anchor the whirl of pratfall and hijinx and allow the movie to stabilize into story — not a story that’s never been told, by any stretch, and with no new twist to speak of. What makes the romantic adventures of Delysia and Miss Pettigrew even remotely interesting is the film’s visual texture and its fractured representation of farce — it opens with pure generic convention, then pokes it a little by slowing down its pace, vexing its salad-days gloss with images of gasmasks on mannequins, and darkening happy endings with reminders of the oncoming Second World War. Miss Pettigrew is no novel indictment against war or women’s fashion (although the fashion-show scene cleverly fuses the two and gives them a quick, mild scolding), or the way people shamelessly manipulate others. In fact, the movie is fairly complacent about the questions of class and gender it raises, exploits for plot purposes, then lets fall to the ground again. Nalluri has bent over backwards to make a technically superior farce and warm-n-fuzzy whimsy — a sweet 90 minutes of emotion — and uses his director’s prerogative to keep his social commentary unprovocative and his mood light. He doesn’t challenge the standard rom-com notion of women finding validation in bright clothing and male attention (in fact, this notion is reinforced with a mallet when dun Miss Pettigrew catches a man’s eye by wearing a radiant blue scarf he designed), and the story rewards female lack of ambition. That said, we probably shouldn’t expect much of a twist on rom-com tradition in a film based on a novel written in 1938.
The movie’s not-so-fresh message about the dangers of pretense is frothy in execution and inarguably in-your-face, but it’s a message that fits seamlessly into the whole and, like Delysia, can’t really offend us when it’s dressed so superbly (did I say how stunning this movie looks, and how rousing its radio-days grooves?). The preaching begins in nomenclature — Delysia’s last name, Lafosse, puns on the near-sounding French word for the feminine false (and the literal word for hole or pit) — and ends with characters being chastised for their subterfuges, for “playing at life” and almost giving up genuine happiness for superficial ambitions, or for living through the lives of other people, as Miss Pettigrew does. Both Delysia and Miss Pettigrew (who cons her way into her job as starlet-wrangler) are sympathetic parasites who glimpse themselves in each other and bond immediately, though it takes an entire movie for the friends to confess their true identities to one another. When all these lessons about pretense begin to add up thematically, Nalluri’s choice to milk the contrivances of farce to communicate his moral starts looking like good story-telling wisdom. By the end of the movie, you can spot the heart underneath all the gags and bubbles, and you can’t help feeling a little warm and dampish with delight. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day has some whalebone in its corset, and plays beautifully with conceits and metaphors (I’ve barely scratched the surface), but despite the substance it builds into its presentation, it’s a film that never pretends to rise above its genre(s); as the characters themselves discover by movie’s end, lofty goals are nothing next to pleasing others. I got got, dammit. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on March 10, 2008.)