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Amy Adams has pulled off a thespian three-peat with Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: It may be a good time for other bright-eyed Hollywood naifs to consider getting a new thing, because it’s doubtful that Adams will be out of work anytime soon. The redhead’s turn as Delysia Lafosse, an American actress-singer in 1939 London, is more sensual than either her castaway princess in last year’s Enchanted or her breakthrough role as an expectant small-town wife in 2005’s Junebug. Delysia has several lovers, for one, and doesn’t know whether it’s night or day when a guest arrives at her apartment, her bra hanging from a chandelier. But even as she coos about how good a fur coat feels against her naked body—horrifying her very new, very modest assistant—Adams is pure schoolgirl giddiness as Delysia spontaneously slides herself up and down a sofa to maximize the cushy contact. She’s at once dirty and innocent.
Though Adams pops off the screen, Miss Pettigrew does, in fact, get her day as well. Frances McDormand initially seems to be doing an ace Emma Thompson impression as the titular British governess—she’s raggedy, homeless, and recently dismissed from her last job for “utter unsuitability” before she swipes a lead off an employment agent’s desk and shows up at Delysia’s door. But you soon—well, eventually—forget the distracting resemblance as the character’s serendipitous day unfolds. Guinevere Pettigrew, a preacher’s daughter who’s never had a drink or uttered a curse word in her life (“not even in my mind”), is shellshocked when she meets Delysia. The actress immediately puts Pettigrew to work to wake her sleepy Phil. The governess assumes Phil is her son, but she’s mortified to discover after marching into the bedroom that he’s actually a theater producer (Tom Payne) who’s promised Delysia the lead in his new play.
Delysia needs to get Phil out the door, though, because Nick (Mark Strong), the owner of not only the flat but the club where Delysia sings, is on his way. But she also wants Nick quickly ushered out so she can make it to a lingerie show. The quick-thinking Pettigrew manages to dispense with both and, feeling a bit slimy, tells Delysia there’s been a misunderstanding and that she’ll be leaving now that the crisis has been averted. Delysia begs her not to go, chirping: “The crisis is ongoing!” Indeed, she also needs help dealing with Michael (Lee Pace), a piano player who’s poor and without connections but is her true love. So Pettigrew agrees to work as Delysia’s “social secretary.” Their first order of business is to doll up the assistant, because the starlet isn’t about to “run around town with Oliver Twist’s mom.”
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, adapted from Winifred Watson’s novel by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy and directed by television veteran Bharat Nalluri, is lovely both superficially and emotionally. With its gilded set pieces, gorgeous period costumes, and miles of ringlets, the film can seem like nothing more than fashion-porn fluff. But there’s more to Delysia’s boyfriend crisis and Pettigrew’s glimpse of high society: World War II is about to begin, a fact the script mentions with impressive subtlety considering its ultimate impact on the story. Pettigrew is dazzled by the bubbly world to which Delysia introduces her but is soon dismayed to discover that her employer’s romantic manipulations seem to be de rigueur within her circle. Delysia’s young friends think the war planes rattling their parties are fascinating; Pettigrew solemnly remarks to Joe (Ciarán Hinds), a dashing lingerie designer she’s drawn to, “They don’t remember the last one.” The bon vivants are too enamored with life to consider the specter of death.
Just as Pettigrew is passing as a member of a higher class once she’s cleaned up, Delysia is a bit of a cheat herself, which allows Adams to bring a hint of sadness and, more important, humanity to her character. The film’s message about love and being true to oneself is exquisitely conveyed in a nightclub scene: With Michael backing her and Pettigrew in the crowd, Delysia sings “If I Didn’t Care,” her glamorous façade slightly cracking as she grasps the meaning of the lyrics as if for the first time. The performance affects Pettigrew, too, who mists up initially with pride at Delysia’s moving rendition—but then you can see her thoughts wandering to more personal matters as well. The moment is melancholy, uplifting, and ultimately transformative for not only the characters but the film itself, all proving to be doing more than playing dress-up.