Miss Pettigrew tries mightily to capture a moment, not just in the life of a woman whose small world is spiraling out of control, but of a nation on the precipice of World War II. The result is all froth and no substance, although director Bharat Nalluri does capture the flavor of a lively London before the blitz, and showcases some wonderful, lived-in performances amid the glitz.
Adopting a British accent and a priggish, deferential demeanor, Frances McDormand (Fargo, Laurel Canyon) brings an innate strength to Guinevere Pettigrew, a down-on-her-luck nanny who finds herself in the unlikely role of social secretary to the tasty Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), a cabaret singer and gold digger in need of some strong moral guidance. Adams (Enchanted) makes this frisky sex kitten alternately coquettish and calculating, a bubbly throwback to the screwball era.
An American expat angling for the lead in a West End musical, Delysia tries to convince the impressionable Miss Pettigrew that she appeared in those comedies, like Four's a Crowd (1938), only to have the movie-loving Guinevere question what part she played. ("I was the crowd," is her breezy reply.) This brief exchange epitomizes the push-pull dynamic of their relationship: Delysia brings the self-depriving Guinevere into her realm of pleasure and glamour, while the maternal Miss Pettigrew asks the tough questions no one in the ingenue's mercenary social circle would think to articulate.
In adapting Winifred Watson's 1938 novel, screenwriters David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) use this relationship to anchor their frenetic farce, where characters conveniently stumble upon one another, and everyone parties like there's no tomorrow. Their Miss Pettigrew is an innocuous romantic fable about second chances, lacking the snappy rapport and sharp bite of a scathing comedy of manners like Bright Young Things (2003), Stephen Fry's adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies.
A veteran of British TV, Nalluri (Hustle, Life on Mars) tries to contemporize this period story with restless camerawork, overcompensating for the lack of action with a constantly roving eye. He relies heavily on Paul Englishby's bouncy jazz score to achieve that screwball rhythm, but can't quite hit the right notes.
Nalluri effectively frames characters in their glossy, art deco environs, and polishes their untidy lives until they gleam. He's so infatuated with the shiny surface that he forgets to look underneath, at the foundation crumbling with dry rot.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.