Look. I know. I hear you.
You’d rather be reading about 10,000 B.C., that caveman-and-saber-tooth-tigers thing opening today. Listen: I’d rather be writing about it. Cavemen (cavewomen), saber-tooths, mastodons — I am so there. Granted, prehistoric mammals aren’t a patch on dinosaurs. I know that cavemen (and cavewomen; remember One Million Years B.C. with Raquel Welch? Barbara Bach in Caveman? Hubba hubba) didn’t co-exist, but, boy, they should have, just like they do in the movies.
But: No one sent me a screening invite. Just didn’t happen. These are the breaks. So, here it is instead, the picture someone would let me see in advance: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which Focus Features opens today for audiences with less Neanderthal sensibilities.
And it is not half bad. The film is based on a fairly forgotten novel by one Winifred Watson, who set and wrote the book back in the Pleistocene age, or right before the Second World War. Watson, who died in 2002, put her pen down for good during WWII, which is too bad, as her whole canon might have committed to celluloid by now. Knowing that she went cold turkey on her career to raise her family adds poignancy to one of the film’s best scenes, where Miss Pettigrew (the indomitable Frances McDormand) and her well-born, would-be suitor Joe (Ciaran Hinds, the go-to Brit you get when Tom Wilkinson is unavailable) take a breather from a party to watch planes massing in the night sky. Noting the age of the partygoers, who are unconcerned about what the spectacle portends, Joe observes, sadly and presciently, “These young people didn’t live through the last one.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. You need to know that Miss Pettigrew is not from the manor born; when we meet her, she is flat busted broke and near starved (her inability to find something to eat over the course of one very long day in her life is one of the movie’s running jokes). A failed nanny who is too commonsensical for children and too detached in demeanor for adults, Miss Pettigrew purloins an unemployment agency posting meant for a more suitable candidate and reports to a swank penthouse apartment inhabited by an American performer, Delysia Lafosse, whose love life is as colorful as her name. Delysia is tastily played by Amy Adams, who we do not blame for singing one of her Enchanted songs during the Oscars — she was merely following orders. Here she moves to her own beat, juggling three men: nightclub owner Nick (Mark Strong), who owns the flat, budding impresario Phil (Tom Payne), who promises her a plum part, and her pianist Michael (Pushing Daisies star Lee Pace), who loves her unreservedly and would do anything to get her to settle down with him. Delysia comes to rely on Miss Pettigrew’s counsel, and announces her to her smart-set friends as her social secretary (cue makeover scene, from muddy browns to more stylish threads, albeit 1939 ones). Her duties come to sorting out Delysia’s suitors, and who she winds up with is as predictable as what happens when an unguarded cave dweller gets too close to the paws and jaws of a saber-tooth.
There are, however, modest pleasures to be found in this late-winter entertainment. Delysia’s planting her feet on the ground is contrasted with Miss Pettigrew’s achieving a long-postponed romantic liftoff with Joe, a designer who is warily engaged to fashion doyenne Edythe, portrayed with a concrete upper lip by Shirley Henderson. In a role intended but unproduced for Wizard of Oz co-star Billie Burke 70 years ago, the Fargo star skillfully calibrates her character’s warming trend, under the direction of Bharat Nalluri. Nalluri, who is best known for the BBC/HBO miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath, gets full-gale performances from the cast, who make themselves at home in the period salons and railway stations in the adaptation by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty). There are a few of these pictures every year, and they can go very badly; I still break out into hives thinking about Judi Dench in Mrs. Henderson Presents, twinkling so like an old dear great lady of the stage and screen you wanted to bitch-slap her.
I also appreciated the soft allure of the widescreen cinematography of John de Borman, which you wouldn’t get if this had been remaindered to what’s become of Masterpiece Theatre. (Its run of cheap-looking Jane Austen remakes suggests that wartime rationing has resumed.) That it was filmed at Ealing Studios, home to so many classic British comedies, gives Miss Pettigrew additional pedigree. If there had been some way to get a dinosaur in there I’d have no reservations at all.