Thursday, February 19, 2009

When Worlds Collide

Today's movie: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

From director Bharat Nalluri (known predominantly for television work) and based on a 1935 novel of the same name by Winifred Watson, the story follows the down-on-her-luck governess Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) for a single, whirlwind 24 hour period.

Sacked from yet another governess job for what might be incompetence or maybe too-exacting standards (in any case, she appears to be chronically unsuitable for the work), the desperate Miss Pettigrew overhears her employment counselor talking about a vacancy, and she steals off to poach the position before a more suitable applicant can be rounded up. Showing up at the residence, she meets Delysia LaFosse (Amy Adams), an aspiring actress whose life is a slapstick whirlwind as she simultaneously courts three different men. What follows is part comedy of errors, part fateful meeting of the minds, part happy serendipity. Miss Pettigrew seems to possess exactly the temperament and wisdom to bring a sense of dignity and order to the scattered-but-delightful Delysia, and she, in so perfectly availing herself of Miss Pettigrew's talents, helps restore a sense of purpose to the older woman.

The story is set, as it was written, in London just before England's entry into WWII. Conditions are harsh and jobs scarce, and as she is booted from her last job Miss Pettigrew teeters on the edge of homelessness. Through her desperate subterfuge, she finds herself whisked up into the whirlwind of Delysia's high society crowd, but she quickly learns that not everything is as it appears. Despite appearances to the contrary, Delysia herself is painfully aware that she is scarcely further from the street than Miss Pettigrew. In that, as Miss Pettigrew says, they understand each other.

In the DVD's special feature interviews Frances McDormand calls the film a "buddy movie," and what passes between the two women is really the whole banana here. Frances McDormand, last seen in the Coen Brothers' fabulous Burn After Reading, is an actor's actor, someone whose plain looks and no-nonsense manner and versatility enable her to pull off just about anything (contrast her Oscar-winning performance in 1996's Fargo with her dimwitted gym employee in Burn After Reading and the earthy Zoe in 2003's Something's Gotta Give). Sporting a workable upper crust British accent and dressed in a frumpy, mousepelt-colored schoolmarm frock and convent shoes, she is perfectly cast as the middle-aged disciplinarian, a woman made wise by age and experience who has neither the time nor inclination for verbal niceties.

Though she is subtly quite funny at times, she is the straight man, as it were, the Dean Martin to the fabulous Amy Adams' Jerry Lewis. I last saw Adams as Princess Giselle in Disney's 2007 film Enchanted, a movie absolutely carried by the sunshine of her portrayal, and she proves here that sunshine is a welcome commodity in all the nicer places (well, she brought the same virtues to Junebug, but clearly there are limits to what sunshine can fix). Though more of an ensemble piece than Enchanted (even if it's only an ensemble of two), Pettigrew is another movie which owes so much of its tenor to Adams' performance, a movie which would be quite different in someone else's hands. Adams gives us a Delysia who is not unintelligent but a bit scattered, someone who finds delight in many places and, in a perilous world, is doing her best to maximize the chances placed before her. Beneath the bubbly exterior, Delysia is a survivor. But she's a young woman without much wisdom and experience, and what is needed is the guiding hand of an older third party, one with Delysia's best interests in mind. Enter Guinevere Pettigrew.

I think what makes Amy Adams so compelling is how note-perfectly she gives us a sense of optimism and lighthearted elation while at the same time having a little current of sadness, an awareness of grim reality, running just beneath the surface. Her portrayal is never given over to either extreme, and in this carefully-crafted middle ground--even in a light comedy--we're treated to a touching, very human portrayal. It's so convincing that we're convinced she's not acting; Amy Adams must be just like this in real life, we think. She's simply that good, and it's a real accomplishment that we can see it in this kind of froth.

The rest of the movie is peopled by bit parts mostly, caricatures off whom our two stars can carom as the story rolls along: a trio of dashing young men in pursuit of Delysia, a couple of carnivorous femmes fatales against whom she must compete, and an older man (the great CiarĂ¡n Hinds in a quiet, confident performance) who sees Miss Pettigrew for who she really is (yeah, *surprise!* I mean, it's not called Delysia Turns Her Life Around).

Director Nalluri has given much of the movie a quick, unsentimental pace. The quiet moments, the key speeches, retain a greater impact this way; the whole thing feels quite confidently pulled off.

I had high expectations from two of my favorite actors, but I expected to find them treading in an insubstantial froth. And perhaps so it is: it's a romantic comedy, after all. But it's more substantial than I had expected, a fine entertainment and very worth two hours of your time.

Grade: A-

1 comment:

dbackdad said...

Cool review. I've always been a fan of McDormand. Fargo is absolutely one of my favorite movies and her performance in that is iconic. I agree with your appraisal of Adams, specifically in Enchanted. Sounds like this movie is worth a rental.