Winifred Watson’s 1938 novel “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” may be small potatoes in the rarefied all-of-life-in-one-day literary realm best exemplified by “Ulysses” and “Mrs. Dalloway,” but it still provides enough charm and feeling to sustain a film version 70 years later. After an unpromising first act of misfired comedy, London-set tale of a frumpy middle-aged woman whose fleeting involvement with an opportunistic young actress-singer profoundly alters both of their lives eventually builds enough steam to pay off emotionally. Stars Frances McDormand and Amy Adams will give this highly theatrical thespian vehicle a modest life in cinemas and a more devoted following as home entertainment.
If not previously informed that the film is based on a novel, any viewer would be justified in imagining it originated as a stage farce; long scenes, including most of the opening stretch, are confined to the fabulous art-deco apartment occupied by aspiring star Delysia Lafosse (Adams), while other lengthy sequences are set in the Savoy Hotel ballroom and in a swank nightclub, with characters entering and departing as if on cue.
Style set by helmer Bharat Nalluri (the miniseries “Tsunami: The Aftermath,” the feature “The Crow III: Salvation”) plays into this format and the theatrical milieu, as he places full responsibility for the film’s early effectiveness on the comic timing of his two leads. Unfortunately, this is not immediately forthcoming, as the entire setup of forlorn, unemployed Guinevere Pettigrew (McDormand) chancing into a stint as social secretary to the romantically overextended American thesp Delysia feels arch and forced, obliging composer Paul Englishby to work overtime to provide a little bounce.
A flighty, self-dramatizing beauty, Delysia is the kept woman of tough guy Nick (Mark Strong), in whose club she regularly performs for the swank set of London, 1939. When Guinevere first intrudes into the fashionably appointed penthouse, however, Delysia is entertaining handsome young playboy Phil (Tom Payne), a theatrical producer’s son who, provided with the desired fringe benefits, is inclined to cast Delysia in the lead of his own first production.
There’s no doubt that Delysia is highly practiced at playing men to her benefit — a way of life that may not shock the austere, reserved Guinevere but represents an affront to her very being. Desperate for a job, Guinevere is dragged off to a lingerie show at the Savoy, where she falls into an oddly simpatico exchange with manly fashion designer Joe (Ciaran Hinds), whose engagement to salon owner Edythe (Shirley Henderson) appears tenuous.
Back at the flat, yet another man arrives to complicate Delysia’s life. Having just finished a short prison stint, Michael (Lee Pace, of TV’s “Pushing Daisies,” looking like a young Clive Owen) has nothing to offer but his unconditional love and two tickets for the Queen Mary, on which he’ll play lounge piano and he hopes she will sing. His intentions are impeccable — he and Delysia are clearly meant for each other — but his timing could scarcely be worse.
As pic’s deficient farcical elements begin to recede, its moral and emotional underpinnings come gently to the fore. A woman that life has mostly passed by, Guinevere still possesses a very proper sense of right and wrong that makes her the ideal momentary cohort for the self-absorbed Delysia; as Guinevere observes, “I am an expert on the lack of love.” Without putting too fine a point on it, script by David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) and Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”) offers a quiet critique of self-delusion in immediate pre-war Britain and, more generally, of opportunistic behavior at the expense of long-term benefits.
McDormand’s performance slowly builds a solid integrity, and contrasts well with Adams’ more flamboyant turn, which initially accentuates Delysia’s constant role playing but eventually flowers into a gratifyingly full-fledged portrayal of a woman with a past she wishes to escape. Hinds puts real feeling into his work as a self-made gentleman who instantly recognizes Guinevere’s fine human qualities.
Shot almost entirely at the Ealing Studios, pic has a luxuriantly upholstered look, fostered by production designer Sarah Greenwood, costume designer Michael O’Connor and lenser John de Borman, that sumptuously expresses the transition from one era to another.