Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Directed by Bharat Nalluri
adapted by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy, from the novel by Winifred Watson

The new film from director Bharat Nalluri is his fourth feature and his first since 2000 (after a couple of forgettable low-budget "thrillers" and the thankless task of the third - and final) - installment of the The Crow franchise). This previously undistingushed career, supplemented by work in series television and a couple of made-for-TV films, takes a great leap forward with his turn to period comedy.

With a screeplay from David Magee and Simon Beaufoy, adapted from the novel by Winifred Watson, and a very talented cast, Nalluri coaxes all the charm and humor from a genre - the British "comedy of manners" - that has rarely survived ham-handed modern attempts to revive it.

But with a pedigree that goes back at least as far as Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream this is a time-proven formula - when handled with real skill. Recalling such films as My Man, Godfrey or The Philadelphia Story, Miss Pettigrew takes a cast of mostly likeable characters through a madcap series of events that change them all.

There's a little bit of "edge" here, with a couple of brief but jarring references to the approaching precipice of the Second World War and to the shallowness of some of society's most privileged, but in general the film is so good-natured, so generous even to the least sympathetic of its characters that the end result is sheer escapist fun.

As with many films of this type, the basic narrative is that of a "romantic comedy" - "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" - although in this case the gender roles are reversed, and the story is told from the women's point of view: "girl meets boy..."etc., and - as in quite a few of its predecessors, more than one story is being told.

In this case there are two. The first is that of Delysia LaFosse - née Sarah Grubb (Amy Adams) - an aspiring singer and musical comedy star who is the "kept woman" of night club owner Nick (Mark Strong), the soul-mate of her accompanist Michael (Lee Pace) and is using her "feminine wiles" (read "sex") to try to sleep her way into a part in a new show being mounted by producer Phil (Tom Payne). Her moral and emotional dilemma - of which path to choose - is one of the matching pivots around which the story turns.

The other is that of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew herself (Frances McDormand) - a victim of the class-consciousness of pre-war England. Guinevere is a bright, capable, insightful woman relegated by her background and her low self-esteem to "the servant class," acting as governess to the children of her "superiors." But her personal worldview will not be supressed, and because of it, she loses her position and finds herself out on the street.

She takes an unexpectedly bold step: she filches a referral card from the employment agency that refuses to place her, and goes for the job - thinking it will be another governess position. But in fact, the more-than-slightly overwhelmed Delysia is looking for a "social secretary" someone to help her navigate the incredibly complex web of relationships she's woven about herself and make some sense of the competing demands.

Miss Pettigrew tumbles into the position, but her native wit and resourcefulness bring her quickly to her feet as she gets a handle on the situation and almost immediately - overcoming a certain moral squeamishness - finds a way to give Delysia a little breathing room. In return the good-hearted Delysia - who can't tell a social secretary from a writing desk but recognizes Guinevere's innate qualities - enlists her as an ally and treats her to a make-over (on one of her paramour's bill) so that she can accompany Delysia into society.

The ensuing transformation is one of the treats of the film, and the second of the emotional points, as Guinevere awakens to her own possibilities and value even as she sees through the superficiality of the society which has always been closed to her. In trying to help Delysia straighten out her own life and find a moral center that will guide her in making the choices that need to be made, Miss Pettigrew also learns a great deal about herself, about her illusions and self-imposed limitations, that allows her to eventually transcend them.

In the process she attracts an admirer, fashionable lingerie-designer Joe (Ciarin Hinds), who shares her down-to-earth values (and salt-of-the-earth roots) and confirms her confidence in pursuing her own path. So, in the end, obstacles are overcome, lovers united and a good time is had by all. So, it's a familiar story, with many forseeable (but not completely predictable) tropes.

The appeal of this film isn't in its originality (although its been such a long time since anyone has pulled this off quite so well that it seems new) so much as in its flourish and grace. As written and realized here this almost allegorical retelling of the story of love's labors (nearly) lost takes on vitality and energy from a script that wouldn't have embarrassed Noel Coward and performances that do credit to all the actors, against a background of wonderfully detailed set and costume decoration all buoyed by a delightful musical score of (and in the style of) the period.

Interestingly, the film was made as Ealing Studios, home to the great classic British comedies of the 1940s and 50s, including the best work of Sir Alec Guinness. The British film industry has had an uneven record in recent years, scoring the occasional bulls-eye with comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Full Monty, but more often failing to live up to the reputation for witty dialogue coupled with emotional sincerity and wonderfully understated gags that characterized the best of the earlier work.

Which is partly why it's so surprising that an India-born British director with a CV like Nalluri's should be the one to raise the spirit of those golden days. But he is more than equal to the task here, capturing the sophisticated sense of fun informed by insight, emotional honesty and a basic respect for human decency that makes the work of Coward and Wilde and other English playwrights hold up so well.

Nalluri has made very good casting choices, and his actors do their work with obvious enjoyment. Amy Adams, as the harried Delysia shows glimpses of the endearing naivete and innocence just beneath the practical and cynical mask she's taken on in service of her ambition. Lee Pace, as her accompanist and true love embodies a vulnerable but stalwart solidity that makes it clear what she finds attractive about him. Tom Payne is ridiculously shallow and silly as the would-be playboy-producer Phil Goldman, and Mark Strong's opportunistic but ultimately honorable cabaret owner Nick is an excellent foil for Michael.

Shirley Henderson produces nearly scene-stealing bits as the deliciously manipulative and sharp-tongued Edyth - the closest thing this film has to a villain. Ciaran Hinds delivers a wonderful piece of understated characterization, making Joe's longing for escape from the fantasy world in which he's immersed himself palpable. He brings a mix of cynicism, resignation and hope to the role that makes his eventual recognition of (and by) Miss Pettigrew that much more satisfying.

And Frances McDormand must have turned cartwheels when she saw this script. There isn't another actor active today (Vanessa Redgrave might have done a decade ago) who could realize Miss Guinevere Pettigrew with the delicate combination of self-effacing timidity and reckless confidence, intelligence and instinct, cleverness and guileless sincerity that she creates here. In a world where there are few roles full of the meat of the craft of acting that are also great fun, especially for women "of a certain age," McDormand takes full advantage of the opportunity she has been offered. This is certainly a performance that will be worth consideration for major awards.

As I said above, the production design and all the elements that go into that, including props, sets, costumes, make-up and so on, are wonderful. Merchant-Ivory in their legendary prime - although more serious - were never better at using these elements to evoke a sense of time and place. The cinematography is generally fine - even if there are one or two too many rotating shots for my taste - and generally supports the production effectively. And the wonderful combination of period music and an unassuming but thoroughly capable original score adds its own enjoyable flavor.

So what if the final creation is, on one level, nothing but a ball of fluff? It's lovely, carefully-crafted, beautifully-colored fluff - a Fabergé egg of fluff - that is a joy to behold. Nalluri and his collaborators have given us an "entertainment" in the best sense - a delightful ninety-plus minutes with charming and amusing people, who don't insult our intelligence nor betray our aspirations for them, as they work through another variation on the oldest of human themes - finding the heart's way in a confusing and distracting world.

That's my take on it. What's yours?