If the same teams of tastemakers and demographic experts that design movies like “Transformers” and “300” to be sure-fire vehicles for 14-year-old boys were to come up with a must-see for women over the age of 50, the result might be “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” a romantic fantasy about a drab, middle-aged governess (Frances McDormand) plunged into the social whirl of London’s smart set on the eve of World War II. Alas, this grossly underserved segment of the moviegoing public deserves a stronger film than this flimsy, chaotic venture.
“Miss Pettigrew” begins with its titular heroine being let go from yet another child-rearing assignment. Cold and hungry, she spends an afternoon wandering the streets of London, having accidental run-ins that will later prove to be vital to the plot.
When her employment agency refuses to send her out on another job, she steals a card for one Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) and shows up at Miss Lafosse’s apartment, claiming to be a social secretary who’s just finished working with Carole Lombard.
While Miss Pettigrew has apparently had a checkered history dealing with actual children, she soon flourishes by treating Delysia — a flighty nightclub singer with three boyfriends — and her society pals like the overgrown toddlers that they are.
Over the course of one dizzying day, with the threat of Nazi bombers circling in the background, Miss Pettigrew helps Delysia pick the right man, subtly assists lingerie designer Joe (Ciarán Hinds) avoid the wrong woman, and taps into her own femininity by submitting to a makeover and wardrobe overhaul.
Speaking of wardrobe, “Miss Pettigrew” will be most thrilling to anyone who seeks out movies about the 1930s just to look at the gowns, the tuxedos, the cocktail shakers, the ladies’ silk underwear, the taxicabs, the bathrooms and the dance floors. Director Bharat Nalluri and his production crew know there’s an audience for that stuff, and they don’t skimp on the outfits, the sets or the furnishings.
What’s missing, unfortunately, is a stronger script. I am admittedly unfamiliar with Winifred Watson’s 1938 novel — which apparently made quite a splash when it was reissued in the U.K. in 2000 — but David Magee and Simon Beaufoy’s screen adaptation is annoyingly slapdash in tone.
The scene where Miss Pettigrew and Delysia first meet feels insanely manic, with the filmmakers attempting to mimic the spirit of screwball comedy through speed alone, while later segments feel sluggish and draggy. Individual vignettes pop, thanks to the exemplary cast (which also includes Tom Payne, Shirley Henderson and “Pushing Daisies” star Lee Pace), but the film as a whole feels unformed and all-over-the-place.
But whether you have a grandmother of your own — or you’re just the kind of person who gets the occasional hankering for a cup of tea, a hot-water bottle, a cozy chair and an old RKO movie on TCM — “Miss Pettigrew” will make for a charmingly unchallenging afternoon at the movies. And if you get bored with the plot, just look at the purses and the shoes.